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Stress And Your Digestive System: Relax To Rest And Digest

in YD News, YogaDork Ed


by Jessie Dwiggins

We rarely pause to consider the functions of the organs that process and assimilate our food into our bodies. Yet without our digestive system, our bodies would lack the essential nutrients to keep our beings healthy and vibrant. In this post, we will explore how our habitual body positioning can throw our digestive systems out of whack.

Introduction to Your Guts

The stomach is a smooth muscle sac located on the left side of the upper abdomen. The diaphragm caps the stomach and the spleen and pancreas are tucked underneath. Gastric compressions churn food with acid and enzymes. The stomach is roughly the size of a fist when empty and can contract and expand. To make room for expansion, the stomach exterior pushes up on the diaphragm and nudges the intestines down. Have you ever eaten too much and felt short of breath and bloated?

The small and large intestines are smooth muscle tubes folded many times over to pack their enormous length into a compact area. Wave-like contractions in the small intestine move food through the canal to brush up against villi, which sweep through food to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. The large intestine recaptures salt and water and condenses remaining, indigestible food particles into stool.


The abdominal organs are encapsulated by the transverse abdominis, internal obliques and external obliques. Their role in digestion is to compress abdominal contents. These muscles activate intermittently to help the digestive system regurgitate and defecate. They are meant to relax after they help move stuff out. But they don’t, not fully.

The abdominals remain active to maintain postural alignment. That is a normal function. We get into trouble when stress “ties our stomach into knots” all of the time. Continuous, low grade stress, or our perception of it, creates chronic abdominal tension.

Stress and Muscle Tension

abdomen-Grays_AnatomyIn a fight or flight response, danger signals the hypothalamus of distress. The command center for the autonomic nervous system pumps the breaks on rest and digest functions by triggering the adrenal glands to release epinephrine. The adrenaline shuttles blood from the organs to muscles, which tense in preparation to flee. Once we’re in the clear, the response recedes and we resume rest and digest functions.

The problem is that most of us live in a mild, never-ending state of fight or flight with tension throughout our bodies including the abdominal muscles.

Stress is but one origin of chronic abdominal tension. The muscles also become rigid from gym-style abdominal exercises done with poor form, sucking the belly in for vanity or fear of judgement, and our slumped sitting or standing posture. Additionally, wearing tight, compressive clothing, like skinny jeans or shapewear, corset the same muscles that constrict the abdominal cavity. Snug clothing restricts relaxation and narrows all the tubes of our digestive system.

Rest and Digest

The success of our digestive system depends on food being able to pass through the tubes unrestricted. Chronic abdominal tension reduces our ability to digest, assimilate and metabolize our food. Even though the digestive processes of our stomach and intestines are out of our conscious control, we can deliberately relax the abdomen to help free up the flow. Try the following:

  • Induce the relaxation response before and after eating. Before eating, sit and breathe deeply to prime your body for digestion. Deep breathing will down regulate the nervous system before, during, and after eating. And it’s easier to feel satisfaction before getting too full. Many of us eat on the run, but for one meal day, chill for at least 20 minutes after to rest and digest.
  • Eat without distractions. Stimulus from our environment can trigger fight or flight reactions. Like checking email. There may be that one message lurking in our inbox that prompts a load of to-dos. Focus on your food. Chew thoroughly to tire your jaw muscles. Realign your head from forward head position for ease of swallowing. Taste the subtle flavors of your meal.
  • Teach the muscles to relax. Constant stress reinforces abdominal muscle contraction. Therefore, it might feel unfamiliar to relax the abdomen. The muscles need to relearn the sensation.

Try using the Coregeous ball to practice Global Shear on the abdomen. (But not with a full stomach – unless you want to learn how your abs help with vomiting!)

Try Bridge Lifts with Uddiyana.



Jessie Wiggins is a Yoga Alliance 200 HR E-RYT. She has completed both the Forrest Yoga Foundational and Advanced teacher training programs and is a Certified Yoga Tune Up teacher. Jessie holds undergraduate degrees in nutrition and exercise physiology and a graduate degree in nutrition. She is also a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating facilitator. Jessie created Wild Wisdom Yoga to blend yoga and mindful-eating so students can fully realize their instinctive wisdom when moving and eating. She leads teacher-training programs featuring her signature program From Um to Om: Public Speaking for Yoga Teachers.


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