By Kate Duncan.
When it comes to gut health, the greater the diversity of bacteria, the better.
As a Mindfulness and Mindful Business Coach, I help my clients to improve their overall wellness and increase their potential. One of the key things we focus on is improving overall health by reducing stress.
A recent study has linked low levels of stress hormones with healthier micro-biomes. In 2016, researchers from the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) tested red squirrel micro-biomes and analysed the animals' stress hormones. Micro-biomes were found to be more diverse in squirrels with lower stress hormones.
The researchers in Ontario found that red squirrels living in low-stress environments harbour healthier communities of microorganisms. Just like us, they believe these results hold important implications for human health.
Healthy squirrel, healthy human
If low-level stress increases the gut health of squirrels, then what could it do for our human bodies? And more importantly, how can we live a lower-stress life? In this article I’d like to share with you my favourite ways to keep your body and mind relaxed, and your gut bacteria booming.
When our body is in a stress cycle, it is our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that is taking the lead. (If you’d like to know more about the nervous system and how it functions under stress, read this article on my personal website https://www.kateduncanyoga.com/2018/08/22/nervous-system/). The fastest way to escape stress is to intentionally stimulate its opposite: the relaxation response, otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
I am going to show you three exercises to help you do this. I teach these exercises as part of my workshops and mini retreats, and they are included in my new online course called Heal and Reset, which you can find more info on here.
Stimulating the Relaxation Response
Activity: Belly breathing
Sit somewhere quietly and set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes. Place your hands on either side of your upper abdomen, right around the spot where your lower ribs meet your belly. This is where your diaphragm lives. When you breathe in, the diaphragm actively pulls down into your belly (this is what causes your belly to rise on an inhale). When you breathe out, the diaphragm passively tucks back in under your ribs. Just let your breath be how it is, relax your tummy muscles as best you can, and feel each breath as it flows. With your attention, investigate how your body moves as you breathe. Many people have learned to hold their belly’s in, and struggle with this natural expanding that occurs. If this is you, simply lie on your back to get a fuller effect. Remember, this is how you breathe when you’re asleep.
Activity 2: Simple Breath Control Exercise (pranayama)
For this exercise we are going to count the length of the breath, intentionally lengthening the exhale. Lengthening your breath out is one of the fastest ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, the science of which I will leave out of this article. In contrast, the inhale predominately stimulates the SNS, so we can alter the physiology of our body through how we breathe. You can think of the inhale as your bodies accelerator, while the exhale is the break. Thus, when you want to slow down, you apply the exhalation. Sit quietly and begin to count to 4 as you breathe in. Hold for a sec, then exhale out over a count of 6. It’s not important if the counts of 4 and 6 match up to actual seconds, what is important is that the process feels comfortable to you and that the exhale is longer than the in. Every human body has a different breathing pace, so find the one that works for you. It is important not to strain or try to hard (which, ironically, are functions of stress).
Activity 3: Relaxing key parts of the body
Close your eyes and take a few big conscious breaths. Then, working head to toe, you will take your attention to each of the key parts of the body: Jaw, shoulders, chest, belly, hands. To begin, take your attention to the jaw, and at first, simply notice, without trying to change anything, is it relaxed or tight? Just notice while you take a couple of breaths. Then, offer an invitation to the jaw to relax. Often it works well to take a breath in, drinking in your intention for relaxation, then relax on the breath out. Stay for a few breaths until you feel ready to move on. Repeat for each of the key parts, or add your own in. Cycle through as many times as you like or set a timer and keep going until it sounds.
Your healthy belly
These practices can be done as many times as you like, for as long as you like, and anywhere at any time. For example, you could belly breathe in the middle of a busy day at work. You can relax keys parts of the body on a bus, car, or train. You can count your breath with your eyes open as you walk somewhere. They can also be done formally, for a set period of time, each morning or night.
These practices take you out of your incessant thinking and place you in the present, where your natural tendency is to relax and restore. Other ways to stimulate the relaxation response is to be in nature, take a yin yoga class, listen to peaceful music or do a mindful task like gardening or sweeping. As you learn to relax and restore your body, all evidence points to a healthier gut.
These exercises can be a sneaky present to yourself this year, and they can be combined with good beverage choices too. One of my fave tricks for a healthier night out is to start the evening with aMango Passionfruit PERKii poured into a champagne flute, or into a whisky glass over ice.
When it comes to your gut health, every little bit counts. Combined with subbing out a few of those summer bevies with a PERKii, stimulating your relaxation response is the key to feeling a billion times better this season.
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