When we talk about a healthy ecosystem, what comes to mind? Nature, flora, fauna, habitats, natural environments? Probably. But humans also, as biological entities interacting with our environment and energetic fields, are an ecosystem. A quick google search provides the following description of an ecosystem:
''An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system. These biotic and abiotic components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows''.
The inner biome of our bodies is composed of microbes that we need in order to survive. Likewise, the microbes need the environment our bodies provide to survive.
Not only is it an ecosystem, it is a symbiotic ecosystem (Relman, 2013).
One can't exist without the other.
Recently, much research is emerging surrounding the way our gut health affects our mental health. However, information regarding this gut-brain axis is relatively new. As such, the ways we interact with our bodies in relation to our digestive habits are not always pro-healthy ecosystem. Especially given modern ideals around body image and a fast and processed food culture.
The body-mind connection
Happily, yoga is becoming a growing tool in healthcare, offering an intimate channel of learning as we explore the connections between how we feel, what we think, how we act, and how our bodies respond.
A central benefit of yoga practice is to empower individuals to learn about their own bodies and encourage:
Not to mention being an extremely affordable self-care resource.
From a body-mind standpoint, it stands to reason that what we ingest and how we relate to our bodies will impact our minds and vice versa. However, it is only recently that scientists have appreciated the extent to which, specifically, the gut and the brain, are connected. Study after study now demonstrate how a happy gut is closely linked to a happy mind.
So it's good to give our tummies some attention both in what we eat, but also in how we interact with our bodies psychologically and physically.
Yoga, as a holistic practice, is an absolute dreamboat for providing the framework to ensure we are taking care of our bodies, minds, and energies as one beautiful, integrated expression of life.
For me, yoga is very much about a healthy ecosystem - body, mind, and soul. We must treat ourselves with self-compassion, self-care and self-love. That goes for how we view and treat our bodies and the way we think. Negative thoughts affect the way we feel about ourselves. We are programmed to compare, to put ourselves down, to aspire to be a version of 'perfect' when, the joke is of course, that perfect doesn't exist. Nor should it. I can't think of anything worse than millions of little 'perfect' barbie clones repeating themselves monotonously around the earth. So before that actually happens (!), let's celebrate our differences and the differences of others.
When we learn to love our physiques, backgrounds and personalities, and personal quirks, just the way we are, we are more inclined to treat our bodies with care.
When our bodies are treated with care, we are more inclined to feel good about ourselves.
All components have to be working together to ensure a harmonious balance. When balanced, we find even the most simple things are joyful and life starts to run more smoothly. This lifts our spirits and increases our energy levels.
The bottom line is:
- If we don't take care of our gut, our mental health will be negatively affected.
- If we don't take care of our mental health, our gut will be negatively affected.
This then affects our self-esteem, confidence, and general vivacity for life. Think nausea when you're nervous, or butterflies when you're anxious or excited. Growing research suggests that IBS is also connected to this issue. It's a two-way street!
So first, let's look at the science.
Functions of the digestive system and its relationship to the brain
Stomach or digestive discomfort can be the cause or product of conditions such as:
This is because there is a direct link between the gut and the brain.
When experiencing stress, depression, or anxiety, the body responds by directing energy, blood, and resources to the brain and muscles. Stress also produces the hormone cortisol, which further directs energy away from the digestive tract.
We essentially go into a state of fight or flight as opposed to rest and digest conducive to efficient digestion. In the former stress state, the body averts functionality away from digestion to focus on more pressing survival needs. The problem is, this is not generally helpful when under stress in the modern world ( Atlas Biomed, 2021 ).
Some ways the gut can respond to psychological stress are:
- stomach aches
- change in appetite
How does the health of our gut affect our mood?
When the gut biome is inflamed or out of balance, signals are sent to the brain to help regulate the condition. This places stress on the microbiome by releasing chemicals and neurotransmitters which influence the functionality of the brain and can result in variances such as depression, anxiety, or low mood ( Clapp, 2017)
The vagus nerve provides an important link between our gut and our brain. The vagus nerve is a super interesting part of the autonomic nervous system and has both sensory and motor functions. It helps us breathe, digest, and swallow, as well as being partly responsible for decreasing the resting heart rate conducive to rest and digest. The vagus nerve helps regulate the connection between stomach health and mental health (Breit, 2018).
Yoga, mental and dietary health
Yoga is widely recognised as helpful in regulating mental health imbalances and reducing stress. Breathwork (pranayama) practices calm the central nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Movement (asana) brings the focus away from thoughts and into the physical body, this not only builds strength and flexibility in the body which translates to the mind, but it also brings a sense of presence. Presence helps us realise that right now, in this moment, we are ok. It reminds us that we can tap into this place of calm and peace inside us. Meditation brings clarity and headspace, again diverting from the 'monkey mind' toward tranquillity.
In relation to digestive health, yoga has multiple benefits. Asana can detoxify and promote health in our digestive organs through posture and breathwork. Furthermore, yoga is believed to improve circulation, reduce stress, and stimulate movement of the gastrointestinal tract (Healthline, 2021).
This 2021 study saw a marked improvement in constipation experienced by elderly people. A paper by Kavuri 2015 recommends yoga as a remedial therapy for diarrhea as a result of IBS. A further study that researched the application of body-mind therapies such as yoga in treating symptoms of IBS in young people found promising results.
Diet is of course up there in the healthy gut, healthy mind game. Yoga encourages us to eat a healthy, clean, plant-based diet. Its sister science, Ayurveda, is a renowned and widely adopted method of dietary health.
A diverse diet is key, the greater range of bacteria in your gut, the healthier the ecosystem. Each bacteria play a different role in the body so eating a varied diet is important for maintaining and preserving gut health.
A typical western diet lacks diversity and originates from a relatively small number of food sources. Furthermore, processed foods and consumables that travel vast distances to arrive in our supermarkets lack nutrients or contain additives and preservatives that can impact the microbiome (Miclotte, 2019)
Wholefoods, vegetables, legumes, beans, and fruit are high in fibre and nutrients whilst being low in saturated fats and refined sugars. Wholefoods are great because they contain non-digestible carbs which are processed in the large intestine and converted into healthy bacteria, increasing microbiome diversity.
Fibre is conducive to microbial health as it promotes Bifidobacteria which alleviates inflammation in the gut. Foods like apples, artichokes, blueberries, almonds, and pistachios are considered particularly beneficial.
Fermented foods, such as kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, yoghurt are great for reproducing 'good bacteria' in the digestive tract.
To maintain a healthy ecosystem and sense of overall wellbeing, confidence, and happiness, looking after your gut is paramount.
- Eat healthily and in moderation.
- Consume a wide range of nutrients by diversifying your diet.
- Avoid too many processed and fatty foods.
- Eat slowly and mindfully.
- Practice yoga and meditation to effectively digest and reduce stress by activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Look after your mind by checking your thought patterns and the way you relate to yourself and your self-image.
- Breathe deeply
- Practice self-compassion
You have much more control over your mental and physical health than you might think. If low mood, negative body image, and limiting self-talk is something you struggle with,it may be helpful to consider your diet and ways of sending yourself that little bit of extra love and care through practices such as yoga.