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Breathe Your Way to Better Gut Health

Did you know that breathing is the only activity of the Autonomic Nervous System that you have direct conscious control over?

Did you also know that the gut is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS)  through its effect on the enteric nervous system?  Hmmmm….could there be a connection between the two that would allow you access to better gut health and less digestive upset?  Let’s take a look!

Studies show that the ANS is involved with every organ system in your body through an intricate network of nerves that initiate a response to every situation the body is exposed to.  It has generally been accepted that the ANS regulates these responses through either the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) or the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). A trauma event or chronic stress response can result in these systems becoming wired in the wrong way causing an over-exaggerated threat perception (over sympathetic) or in the case of dysregulated parasympathetic – shut down mode.

More recently, scientists are beginning to have a broader understanding of these systems through the connection of the ANS to the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the master regulator of the gut response.  In fact, it’s pretty amazing that the GI tract is the only organ system with its very own nervous system!

It has been my experience that when we have folks at the clinic come in with gut issues – especially food reactivity or symptoms of irritable bowel – there is commonly a story, or a trauma, related to the beginning of the dysfunction.

The ENS and the ANS are incredibly sophisticated neuronal networks that are like a biological orchestra!  When everything is in tune and in harmony it is a symphony of wellness characterized by food enjoyment, processing, and eventual elimination.  Yet when these systems are exposed to the chemicals and neurotransmitters released in response to a traumatic event like a car accident or chronic stress they tend to react.  And rarely in a way we desire.  Many physical symptoms of gut dysregulation include unrelenting bloating and distension, constipation and/or diarrhea, feelings of fullness or unabated hunger, loss of appetite and unhealthy cravings, to name a few.  Neurological symptoms associated with gut dysregulation include sadness, anxiety, depression, fear, ADD/ADHD, feelings of threat that may even lead to phobias.  Does any of this sound familiar to you?

So let’s go back to the beginning with the idea that we have one activity that we can consciously control.  The breath.  When we breathe (or don’t breathe!) we are causing a cascade of events in the body.  Our breath is not only the activity of bringing air into our lungs but it is also a vital detox mechanism that allows us to exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) along with other particulates and even pathogens.  According to an article I read in the journal “Sciencing”; “Some scientists suggest that exhaled air contains as many as 3,500 compounds, most of which are in microscopic amounts.”  So you can see, exhaling is important.

But have you ever noticed yourself holding your breath?  I’ve spoken with many people who say yes to this question, adding that they don’t realize they’re doing it until they have to take a big gasp of air to break the cycle.  What is most important about this is that when we become shabby breathers, meaning we don’t inhale and exhale properly, we actually become CO2 sensitive.  The imbalance of the exhale to the inhale has been shown to increase stress levels in the physical body which in turn increases anxiety.  It can even induce a panic attack.  (Think of breathing into a paper bag for hyperventilation.  The purpose is to increase the CO2 level to balance out the physiology of too much oxygen.)

Anxiety is stressful.  Chronic or sudden stress is going to have an impact on the ANS and eventually the ENS.  The first step in controlling anxiety is to start paying attention to your breathing.  Do you hold your breath?  Do you gulp for air or have air hunger?  Do you have sleep apnea?  Do you breathe through your nose or through your mouth, or both?  Do you have a hard time holding your breath?

These are all questions that you might consider when you are experiencing symptoms in your body knowing that just by paying attention to your breath you can have an enormous impact on the functionality of your systems. Including your gut.

I often teach our clinic’s patients a very simple and useful technique for breathing that has been profound in its benefits.  I call it “resonant breathing” or “baby breath.” It goes like this:

  • Sit or lie down in a relaxed position.
  • Place your hands on your belly and practice breathing into your hands.  Your tummy should rise and fall with your breath. This technique is using your diaphragm to fill your lungs with air.
  • Once you get the hang of it set a timer for 5 minutes
  • Using only your nose – breathe in for a count of five feeling your tummy rise beneath your hands
  • Now breathe out through your nose for a count of five
  • Do your best to match your inhale to your exhale

It may feel funny and a bit clumsy for the first minute or so but your body will instinctively fall into a rhythmic and balanced breathing cycle.  Before you know it the timer will go off and pull you out of this deeply restful and restorative state!  Congratulations! – You have just taken the first steps to dramatically shift the state of your nervous system and to secure a feeling of calm by balancing out your blood chemistry through breathwork.   I recommend doing this five-minute exercise at least 3 times a day for a few weeks to re-train your autonomic system into healthy, balanced breathing.

There are many different types of breathwork systems out there and many of them are quite good and used for different reasons and different levels.  This technique is as basic as it gets and why I call it “baby breath” – because babies breathe perfectly.  Their tummies rise and fall and, unless they have a cold, they naturally breathe in and out of their noses.  More complicated and sophisticated breathing exercises should not be undertaken unless strong foundational work has been done to prepare for it.  Breathwork is not a benign undertaking and can have powerful results.  Those with physical conditions such as auto-immune or chronic fatigue syndrome should start very gently by using this simple exercise before diving into more advanced techniques.

With that being said, the most important thing to know is that you have the ability to influence the way your body works at a deep, neurological level simply by becoming aware of and changing the way you breathe.  Before you eat, before you give that zoom presentation, before you lie down to sleep, take five and just breathe.

*Stay tuned for information on Maria’s “Optimal Detox Program” that combines a metabolic cleanse, elimination diet and vagus nerve regulation protocol to bring peace and functionality back to the gut and digestive system.*

Maria Zilka

Clinic Director, Nutritional Therapist, DNRS Specialist

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