Your gut and your health
IIN loves to talk about the gut, and for good reason – how we take care of our gut health is a large determinant of our overall health, from digestion and elimination to mental well-being and beyond. What it means for our gut to be healthy will look different from person to person, but it can be categorized in two main ways: how we take care of our gut health physically, including exercise and the food we eat, and mentally/emotionally, such as managing stress and anxiety and engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Taking care of your gut health through food and lifestyle could look like:
- Eating a varied and colorful diet that can provide adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics
- Moving your body regularly through exercise that works for you
- Staying hydrated
- Managing stress and anxiety, whether through meditation, breathwork, or meeting with a mental health professional regularly
- Creating an environment that supports your well-being, including nurturing positive relationships and a safe and healthy home
- Refraining from excessive alcohol consumption and smoking
A combination of many or all of these things provides a solid foundation for a healthy gut microbiome.
Movement for a healthy gut
The amazing thing about movement and exercise is it can benefit both physical and mental health, especially gut health. Regular exercise reduces inflammation, the root cause of chronic health conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
One major study actually shows exercise can positively affect the type of bacteria living in your gut microbiome in addition to reducing inflammation biomarkers. Inflammation is also tied to issues such as leaky gut syndrome, where the lining of your gut wall becomes weak and unable to protect your gut from substances that shouldn’t be there, such as harmful bacteria.
The gut is also the source of the majority of serotonin production, the “happiness hormone” that helps regulate mood. If your gut is dysfunctional due to a poor diet or lack of physical activity, your mental health can be impacted.
Four exercises to improve digestion and support gut health
Here are four of the best exercises that support a healthy and well-functioning microbiome. Be sure to check with your healthcare practitioner before starting a new exercise regimen, especially if it’s more vigorous than your previous regimen:
Yoga connects breath with movement and is a mind-body practice that encourages you to tune in to how your body feels in space and within the corners of your yoga mat. In general, yoga can be an opportunity to de-stress, which is important for gut health, but there are several specific yoga poses that can promote digestion and detoxification:
Child’s pose – By letting your stomach relax between your legs, this pose can help ease any gut discomfort and can feel very soothing for your gut in general.
Low lunge – Our body is an interconnected system of parts, especially the muscles around our gut that can impact digestion and gut health. According to Kristin McGee, celebrity yoga and Pilates instructor, tight hip flexors can restrict the muscles in the abdomen and thus restrict digestion. A low lunge can stretch the hip flexors and relieve some abdominal discomfort.
Reclined revolved abdominal twist – “This is a great pose to help promote a healthy gut!” says Jacqui Bongiovani, RYT 200 and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. “The twisting action wrings your abdominal muscles, improving circulation to vital organs.” The post is done by lying on your back with your arms in a T and bringing one knee across the body at a time. “The twist rotates your spine to stretch the muscles in your back all while stimulating the digestive tract.”
Seated spinal twist – By gently twisting from left to right, you apply gentle pressure to the organs that facilitate digestion and can stimulate proper motility. Straining during any type of twist will be counterintuitive, though, so be careful not to overdo it.
Similar to yoga, tai chi is also considered a mind-body practice. Rooted in Chinese philosophy, tai chi’s main goal is to improve the flow of qi, or energy, throughout the body while also promoting balance. It’s a low-impact exercise with a multitude of health benefits, such as improving strength, flexibility, balance, and proprioception, our awareness of our body in space, which declines as we age. Tai chi can decrease stress, which can improve immunity and support gut function!
While high-impact exercise, such as cycling, running, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can actually slow down your digestion, strength training can still provide a cardio boost without negatively affecting your gut motility, the movement of your intestinal tract for proper elimination. High-impact exercise that gets your heart rate up for an extended period is still beneficial for your health, especially heart health, if you’re able to do so. But if you’re experiencing digestive distress, like constipation, low-impact exercise mixed with some strength training may be the way to go.
Breathing is something we likely take for granted – we don’t even have to think about it! – but many of us may not be breathing deeply enough to have a therapeutic effect on our gut. Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is a technique that can be used on a daily basis or when you’re experiencing acute discomfort. It involves inhaling to fully expand the belly, then exhaling to contract the belly. This rhythmic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and reduces muscle tension, including the muscles responsible for supporting digestion and elimination.
Finding exercises that work for your unique gut
Don’t be discouraged if an exercise you do often isn’t on this list. Exercise is a vital component of a healthy lifestyle. As long as you’re exercising safely, from monitoring your heart rate to paying careful attention to form, any exercise you choose to do can benefit your health. If you’ve never attempted the exercises we mentioned above, give them a try!
Or if you often opt for high-impact exercise, like HIIT or cycling, and notice you’re constipated, mix in some lower-impact workouts and see how you feel. Be sure to keep in mind how much water you’re drinking – make sure you’re staying adequately hydrated to support your exercise regimen, as well as support your gut microbiome and motility.
Gut health is one of the many topics we cover in the Health Coach Training Program, and it's become such a popular topic, we even created a whole course specifically on gut health! IIN’s holistic approach to health means looking at every area of our well-being, not just the food on our plates, to determine how to live our healthiest, happiest lives.
Nourishing your gut health is the same – a holistic perspective helps you understand how best to support your gut through not just food but also exercise, emotional and mental support, and other lifestyle practices.