Irritable bowel syndrome is an intestinal problem of unknown cause. Its symptoms often include diarrhea, constipation, as well as bloating and cramping and, in very uncomfortable cases, all of these symptoms in varying degrees. In IBS, there is no blood in the stool, no fever, chills, or weight loss. These are indicators of a different cause and need to be diagnosed by a doctor.
How Yoga fits in is connected not only to the physical practice of Yoga, the mind-body connection brought about by the discipline of this practice, but also the calming and releasing of stress noted to be a factor in the intensity and flare up of this syndrome.
The smooth functioning of digestion depends on the action of the involuntary,(autonomic) nervous system, especially the parasympathetic branch associated with relaxation and restoration. Stress activates the fight or flight system, the sympathetic side which can interfere with the bowels. Interestingly studies have also identified another response to “danger” in women primarily and that is the “freeze” response. This is thought to be held over from when women in charge of protecting their young adopted a “freeze, be quiet” response when they could not outrun or challenge their aggressor. Whether you are fighting, flying or freezing, each can create stress in your system and stress is documented as affecting IBS.
Exercise is known to lower stress levels and there are specific asanas (poses) and breathing exercises in Yoga that calm the sympathetic nervous system found to be beneficial to to IBS sufferers. Meditation is known to be helpful too. Meditation teaches individuals to separate their symptoms from their thoughts and worries about them. This has been documented and transformative with many other studies and conditions such as Dr. Dean Ornish’s clinical study with heart disease. Patients following regular practice of Yoga along with a lifestyle change were able to actually reverse the process of heart disease.
Svadhyaya is the practice of self-study which is one of the paths of Yoga, not just the physical western understanding of the word. This self-study allows the individual to become aware of their connection to the foods they eat and how they make them feel. Diet is a common factor looked at in trying to diagnose the cause of IBS. There are certain foods known to trigger flare ups such as lactose intolerance, fructose intolerance, carbonated beverages, wheat, and fatty or fried foods. These are individual factors subject to trial and error. However, anyone can adopt a different relationship with their food by practicing Svadhyaya.
Try keeping a journal to track what you eat and how it makes you feel. Eating rapidly can lead to swallowing air, which worsens gas and bloating. Chewing slowly can allow enzymes in the saliva to mix with the food and aid in digestion. Being aware of how you perceive eating and food and bringing the awareness to the act of being nurturing to oneself can also aid in lessening symptoms. Being mindful of the food can also make meals less stressful. How you eat and what you eat to nourish yourself can also be factored in when combatting the discomfort and symptoms of IBS.
*This article is intended for those suffering from eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, in the greater San Diego area, seeking affordable treatment and services