Yoga: A path to reduce stress in a busy world

Yoga is a mind and body exercise, touted to reduce stress. But how does it really work in our mind and what should we do to maximize its benefits in our body? There’s no better time to explore these questions as we celebrate National Yoga Awareness Month in September.

I invited a highly regarded (also my favorite) yoga instructor, Wes Linch to write this article to share his knowledge on how practicing yoga can strengthen our nervous system and how to get the most out of your yoga journey! 

From Wes….

Yoga has certainly become a household name the world over and it’s now more popular than ever.  As a result of the pandemic, yoga has become even more available through social media and Zoom, giving people access to amazing teachers that they never would have studied with before.  What is it about this practice that makes people want to get on their mat every day for an hour of moving, breathing, and stretching their bodies?

I think it’s pretty safe to say we live in a pretty stressful world these days.  The last few years have been especially trying for just about everyone.  Human beings intuitively know that when we feel fit and healthy, we manage stress a lot better.  When most of us think about health and fitness, probably what comes to mind are things like cardio, strength training, maybe even diet and nutrition.  However, how many of us consider bolstering and nurturing our nervous system as a critical part of our health and fitness?

When I tell a random stranger that I am a yoga teacher, their typical response is “Wow!  You must be so flexible!”.  This always gives me a bit of a chuckle.  I’m certainly more flexible than when I started yoga, but I’ll probably always be a pretty stiff guy.  Don’t get me wrong, stretching is a very important element of muscle fitness; but, so much of our flexibility is genetic.  So, let’s just get this out of the way and make it clear that extreme range of motion and super fancy poses are not the goal of yoga.  

Strengthen our Nervous System

I really believe that the true gem of yoga has more to do with strengthening our nervous system than it does stretching our hamstrings.  When we strengthen our nervous system, we manage stress better.  So, how exactly does yoga accomplish this?  What makes it better suited than other forms of exercise towards this end?  Believe it or not, it has more to do with our breath and our mindfulness than it does with the postures themselves.  This is also what makes yoga so universally accessible.  Whether you are an athlete, young or old, have an injury or suffer from a chronic illness, yoga can meet you exactly where you are at and present to you an opportunity to be with your body and breath in a really creative and nurturing way.  

So, how exactly does our breath affect our nervous system?  And more specifically, our autonomic (automatic) nervous system.  This is the part of our nervous system that is somewhat out of our direct control.  It controls much of our vital organs, hormones, heart rate, digestion, etc.  It’s a great thing that we don’t have to think about it all the time.  It would be rather tedious for us to think about digesting our food or pumping our blood.  However, much of how our nervous system works in the background gets affected by our environment (rush hour traffic, what we had for lunch, social media, lack of sleep, etc).  This can certainly feel a bit frustrating at times

Our nervous system is regulated by two separate branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic.  The sympathetic side of our nervous system is the alert, wakeful, “get stuff done” side of our nervous system.  It also happens to regulate our fight or flight response as well as our immune function (think about fighting off a cold).  The parasympathetic side of our nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” side.  It helps us feel calm and relaxed (its like recharging our battery).  We can think of these two dual sides as like yin and yang to each other.  What’s most important to understand is that when we nurture our parasympathetic nervous system, it essentially recharges the sympathetic nervous system.  You may have heard of phrases like adrenal fatigue or sympathetic burnout.  This is when we overtax that side of our nervous system making us more susceptible to stress, fatigue, and illness.

This is where our breath comes into play.  Even though we can’t directly “control” our autonomic nervous system, we can indirectly affect it when we slow down our breathing.  When we breath slowly in yoga and focus on being mindful and present in a yoga posture, this has an amazing ability to calm and regulate our nervous system.  This is the true brilliance of the practice.  To make it even more fascinating, when we create a mild to moderate “stressful” situation in practice (think challenging yoga pose) and we learn to breath and relax, we are essentially retraining our nervous system in how it relates to stress.  This is an incredibly useful tool that we can take into any stressful situation of our life.  I personally believe that when we learn to breath and relax in stressful situations, we are better equipped to respond to these situations in a more healthy way.  

The Take Away

So, if you have been practicing yoga for many years, are a beginner, or have never stepped on a yoga mat, consider that it has more to do with how you do it rather than what you do.  If you can show up to your yoga practice, try new things, move your body in fun and interesting ways while encouraging yourself to breath slowly, deeply, and mindfully, you are bound to leave your practice feeling better than when you started.  

Wes Linch

About Wes

Thank you to Wes for teaching me the science and art of yoga for over 10 years! He is responsible for instilling passion in my yoga practice. I hope you will find time to discover his yoga classes. You can find Wes’s class offerings, workshops, and events both online and in person at his website: www.weslinchyoga.com

Wes is a Hatha Yoga instructor, with over 15yrs of practice and having received over 1200hrs of training.  He has studied extensively modern Vinyasa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Shadow Yoga, and Viniyoga.  Currently, he is continuing his training and studies with Nicki Doane (Maya Yoga), Kristin Bosteels, and Eddie Modestini(Yoga on the Inside).  He has had the privilege of studying in-depth with Mynx Inatsugu(Yogaworks and Viniyoga) and Mark Horner (Shadow Yoga).

Wes focuses primarily on bridging the gap between breath, alignment, and awareness.  He aims to make the energy of the practice relevant on and off the mat by introducing traditional yogic teachings with a modern twist.  His classes are fun, sweaty, challenging, and full of great humor and heart.


Improve Your Mood With Brain Food

Imagine if eating differently could elevate your moods or improve your brain and mental health. It can! Or if reducing stress can also reduce gut symptoms . It does!

The gut and brain are interconnected more than we previously thought—new research is proving it. These discoveries have huge potential to help people with gut issues by improving brain health. At the same time, improving gut health can help people with brain or mood issues.

Sounds interesting? Learn all about the gut-brain axis and how you can leverage this new research to improve your gut and brain.

Your gut is partially controlled by your brain

Gut disorders can cause pain, bloating, or other discomfort. They impact over 35 percent of people at some point in life—affecting women more than men. Many times, these gut issues don’t have an apparent or easily diagnosable physical cause, so they can be difficult to treat and find relief from.

We already knew that our brains control some of our digestive processes. For example, research has found that even thinking about eating can cause the stomach to release juices to get itself ready for food. Your gut is also sensitive to emotions. You may recall a time when you felt anxious and nauseous or felt “knots” or “butterflies” in your stomach. 

Several studies show that stress may be an important—often overlooked—reason for gut issues. According to Harvard Health, “Stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.”

This is why it’s so important to look at your stress and emotions if you have gut issues. Many studies have found that stress reduction techniques can lead to greater improvement in gut symptoms compared to conventional medical treatment alone. 

Before I go over how to do this, let’s take a closer look at the biology behind the gut-brain axis.

Your nervous systems

There are two main parts of your “main” nervous system. One is the part that we can consciously control, like when we move our muscles to walk around, chew our food, or play with our kids. This is called the somatic nervous system.

The other part of our nervous system controls all of those things that we can’t control, but need to survive. These include processes that happen automatically in the background: breathing, heart beating, sweating, or shivering. This part of the nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system because it works automatically.

The autonomic system regulates our body’s functions by either speeding things up or slowing them down. When things are sped up, like when our “fight or flight” reactions kick in, this is done by the sympathetic part. We feel this happening when we sense danger – real or not – and get stressed. Our heart beats faster and we breathe heavier. We’re preparing to fight or flee, so our body focuses on ensuring our muscles get enough blood and oxygen to work hard.

Slowing things down, on the other hand, is done by the parasympathetic part. This happens when we’re relaxing or after the danger has passed and we start to calm down. It allows our heart, lungs, muscles and our digestive systems do their jobs much better. In this phase, we’re secreting more digestive juices to break down food, therefore absorbing more nutrients, as well as lowering levels of inflammation in our gut. That’s why this is called the “rest and digest” phase.

Both of these arms of the autonomic nervous system—the sympathetic and parasympathetic—interact with the gut. This means that when our body is stressed we can experience gut symptoms and when we’re relaxed our digestion does what it’s meant to do. 

Your gut is your “second brain”

In addition to your “main” nervous system, your gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system spans your whole digestive tract from your esophagus, along your stomach, intestines, and colon. This nervous system is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” because it works in the same way that the “main” one does. It has 100 million nerve cells (called neurons) that communicate with each other using biochemicals called neurotransmitters.

Your enteric nervous system gets input from both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so it can speed up or slow down when it has to. It also has a “mind” of its own and can function independently of them.

This complex system is important because of how complex our digestive processes are. For example, after we eat, the neurons in our enteric system tell the muscle cells of the stomach and intestines to contract to move food along to the next part. As our gut does this, our enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters to communicate with the central nervous system.

Your enteric nervous system is also very closely linked to your immune system. This is because a lot of bacteria can enter the body through the mouth and end up in the gut. You have a large immune presence there to help fight them off before they become a larger problem and infect other parts of the body. The cells of the immune system provide another path for the gut to communicate up to the brain. They relay information like when they detect an infection or when your stomach is bloated, so your brain knows, too.

Even the friendly gut microbes (gut microbiota) that help us digest and make certain nutrients play a role in communicating with the brain. They make neurotransmitters, some of which are known to influence our moods.

The gut-brain axis

This intimate and complex connection between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis. And we now know that the signals go in both directions: from your brain down to your gut, and from your gut up to your brain.

This is where we see the link between digestive issues and brain, stress, and mood issues.

When someone is stressed enough that they get into the “fight or flight” reaction, digestion slows right down to allow the muscles to fight or flee. The same physical reaction appears whether the stress is from a real threat or a perceived one. This means that your body reacts the same whether you’re facing a real life-threatening situation or whether you’re super-stressed about a looming deadline. This disruption of the digestive process can cause pain, nausea, or other related issues.

Meanwhile, it’s known that experiencing strong or frequent digestive issues can increase your stress levels and moods. People with depression and anxiety have more GI symptoms, and vice versa.

How stress and emotions affect your gut

Because of these strong connections between the gut and brain, it’s easy to see how stress and other emotions can affect the gut. Things like fear, sadness, anger, or feeling anxious or depressed are often felt in the digestive systems. When they cause our digestive systems to speed up (or slow down) too much, this can influence pain and bloating. It can also allow bacteria to cross the lining of the gut and get into the bloodstream, activating our immune systems. It can increase inflammation in the gut or even change the microbiota.

This is why stress and strong emotions can contribute to or worsen a number of digestive issues such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or food allergies or sensitivities.

Then, these gut issues are communicated to the brain, increasing the stress response and affecting our moods. This loop of stress and gut issues leads to a vicious cycle.

New research shows that changes to the gut’s inflammation or microbiome can strongly affect many other parts of the body as well—not just the brain and mood. They’re also associated with depression and heart disease.

How to eat and de-stress for better gut and brain health

What you eat can have a huge impact on your health. This is particularly true when it comes to the microbiome. Your gut health improves when you eat a higher-fiber, more plant-based diet. That’s because it provides your friendly gut microbes with their preferred foods so they can grow and thrive. Probiotic foods that include health promoting bacteria are also recommended. Reducing the amount of sugar and red meat you eat can also help. These can lead to a healthier microbiome by helping to maintain a diverse community of many species of microbes to maximize your health. They can also lower the level of gut inflammation, as well as reduce the risk of depression and heart disease.

Photo by ANTONI SHKRABA on Pexels.com

For better gut and brain/mental health:

Eat More: Eat Less:
Fruits and VegetablesSugar
Nuts and SeedsRed Meat
Whole grainsProcessed breads and cereals
Fermented foods
e.g. miso, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, yogurt
Artificial sweeteners

What about stress? Evidence suggests that some stress reduction techniques or psychotherapy may help people who experience gut issues. They can lower the sympathetic “fight or flight” response, enhance the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, and even reduce inflammation. 

Photo by Valeria Ushakova on Pexels.com

Some of the stress-reduction techniques I love and recommend are:

  • Guided meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation
  • Hypnosis
  • Yoga

Your gut, brain, and mood will thank you!

Final thoughts

Our bodies are complex and interact with other parts on so many different levels. The gut-brain axis is a prime example. Research shows that what we eat not only improves the gut and overall health, but also brain and mental health. Not to mention that several stress-reduction techniques have been shown to reduce digestive illness and distress as well.

If you want a meal plan to help you eat—and enjoy—more of the foods that help your gut, brain, and moods. Use promo code HG50 to save 50% on my digital meal plans . You can customize your the meal plan with hundreds of our deliciously fresh recipes suitable for the whole family to enjoy.

If you have specific medical conditions requiring dietary changes, be sure to consult a registered dietitian who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals.