Yoga for Digestive Disorders
Digestive system & yoga
In the late 19th century, a teen-aged boy named Tom had a bullet shot injury in his abdomen. When the wound healed, he has left a permanent hole in the stomach. Doctors, who were interested in understanding the mechanisms of how the nervous system learns to control body functions, requested Tom to co-operate in their experiments. They collected the gastric secretions through this hole in his abdomen, during different times of the day, and analysed them.
They found that the digestive juices secreted from the stomach increased when Tom felt hungry when he thought of food, when the food was kept in the mouth and, of course, when the food entered the stomach. The interesting part of the experiment was that there occurred a heavy surge of acid from the stomach when Tom was irritated, frustrated, and anxious. This gave a big clue about the effect of emotions on acid production from the stomach.
Just like the face turns red when one is angry, the stomach lining turns red too. And it pours out large amounts of acid and enzymes. Anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, tension, etc are emotions that influence not only the quality and quantity of secretions in the stomach and intestine but also alter the blood flow and the motility of the intestine.
There is a well-organised vigilant control mechanism operating through our automatic nervous system to receive and send information from and to every part of the digestive tract. In other words, our brain (in turn the subconscious mind) knows everything that happens in the digestive system and vice verse. Thus, each one of our emotions and thoughts is perceived by the digestive organs producing necessary changes in their functions.
Many ailments of the digestive system, starting from mouth to rectum are traceable to stress and modern lifestyle. A stressful erratic lifestyle with suppressed negative emotions, unexpressed fears, and wrong habits of eating, sleeping, drinking, smoking etc., over long periods, can permanently disturb the balance resulting in common ailments like repeated mouth ulcers, hyperacidity, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis etc.
How do we digest the food that we consume?
Many people have only the vaguest idea of the size, shape position and function of the stomach and the other digestive organs. To extract nutrients from the food we eat we need to digest it.
First, the food has to be changed into a liquid or semi-liquid form. Then, complex substances such as fats and protein have to be broken down into smaller chemical units that can be absorbed through the walls of the intestine into the bloodstream.
The process of digestion begins in the mouth, where the teeth and tongue chop large pieces of food into smaller ones. The salivary glands release saliva into the mouth to mix with the food. Saliva makes it easier to move food round to chew, and it also contains an enzyme called salivary amylase that starts to digest carbohydrates such as sugar and starches. Saliva is slightly acid and when you are not eating, it goes on being produced and helps to keep your mouth and teeth clean and stop developing plaques on your teeth. People who have conditions in which salivary production is reduced often experience dry mouth, difficulty in swallowing and increased tooth decay.
Once the food is chewed and softened in the mouth, the tongue pushes it to the back of the throat, where muscles propel it down the oesophagus into the stomach through a muscular one-way valve, called the lower oesophageal sphincter, which prevents the contents of the stomach from being forced back into the oesophagus when the stomach contracts or you lie flat.
Eventually the liquidised food is pushed onwards through another valve, the pylorus, into the duodenum, the first few inches of the small intestine. Here, further chemicals are added to neutralize the stomach acid, together with enzymes from the pancreas to help to digest carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and bile from the liver to help to digest fats.
The digested food then passes into the remaining 20feet (six meters) of the small intestine, so-called because, although it is long, its diameter is smaller than that of the large intestine. The chemical breakdown is completed in the small intestine and the useful chemical constituents of the meal are absorbed into the blood and lymphatic vessels.
The main task of the large intestine is to reabsorb the water that is used in digestion and to eliminate the undigested food and fibre.
What is Aggressors?
Smoking, alcohol, and medicines like aspirin, pain killers etc., that are known to induce excessive acid production (hyperacidity), are called aggressors.
All these substances are related to one’s; lifestyle and habits. I.e., these are what we do against the natural healthy ways of living.
What is Indigestion?
Almost everyone occasional attacks of indigestion, which are usually quite brief. We may feel blown out or distended after a large meal and get some relief when we bring upwind. Most of the wind that we bring up is a result of swallowing air as we eat, but some is produced by a chemical reaction in the stomach or from carbonated, fizzy drinks. The solution for this type of gas problem is to eat less, eat slowly, and go easy with fizzy drinks.
More persistent indigestion is usually linked with the acid produced by the stomach. If the valve at the lower end of the oesophagus becomes weak or defective, the acid juices in the stomach may be pushed back upwards into the oesophagus causing a burning sensation (heartburn). This is often troublesome at night when you lie flat. The underlying condition is called gastro-oesophageal reflux.
What is a peptic ulcer?
Peptic ulcer called nowadays as an Acid peptic disease (APD) is defined as inflammation of the inner lining of the stomach due to acid peptic digestion. In other words, there is a fight going on in the lining of the stomach against the irritation by H.pylori germs, The characteristic symptom of peptic ulcer is a burning type of pain in the upper abdomen that comes on in an empty stomach.
Drinking a glass of milk relieves the pain only to come back when the stomach gets empty after about two hours. The pain could be most severe in the early morning hours (around 3 am) when the stomach is empty. Loss of appetite is not a feature of ulcer disease.
How common is a peptic ulcer?
Minor digestive disorders have become a part of our present-day living style, which is a malady of an affluent society with sedentary habits. This minor discomfort turns into a serious problem (beyond swallowing antacids off and on), requiring medical help in about 8 to 10% of the general population. A peptic ulcer that occurs in the duodenum is more common in India & USA and occurs at a younger age group (20-40 yrs).
Gastric ulcer (ulcer in the stomach itself) is more common amongst Japanese showing up at a later age (40-50 yrs).
Did yogis understand this concept and mechanism of psychosomatic ailments?
You may have noticed that the first thing that an Ayurveda yoga physician would like to connect when you have any chronic illness is the digestive system. He does it by cleansing, balancing and correcting the imbalances.
This is because of Knowledge handed down by the ancient yogis who did experiments with their own inner bodily mechanisms through deep meditation and saw that the digestive system is the first target where the stress manifests.
The yogis have given us vivid descriptions of how the psychological upsurges result in psychosomatic ailments.
This understanding is of practical use for every sufferer of digestive problems, to correct oneself and return to normal health.
As mentioned earlier, according to yoga we all have five bodies.
The first body layer, the solid physical body, visible to our eyes made of a permutation and combination of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium and potassium etc. is called Annamaya Kosa (Physical body).
The life energy (prana) that makes each and every cell carry on its functions is Pranayama Kosa (vital energy body), is the second. The right dose of prana is supplied to all cells to maintain health.
The mind which carries on the functions of perception, memory and emotions is called Manomaya Kosa (mind-body or astral body), the third layer.
The inner mind that controls and guides the manomaya kosa is the fourth aspect of our personality called Vijnanamaya Kosa (knowledge body or buddhi). This is the judge who decides what is right and wrong based on life’s experiences so that one can live a life of contentment, bliss and happiness.
In the fifth, which is the subtlest body called Anandamaya Kosa (Bliss body), the person is in perfect health at physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual levels because of total inner mastery over the functioning of each one of the other kosa.
The problem of psychosomatic, or stress-induced disorders, begin in manomaya kosa. The long-standing uncontrolled surges of likes and dislikes which cannot be mended by the directives from Vijnanamaya Kosa, percolate into pranamaya kosa. The clear lake of prana now becomes disturbed and violent, resulting in irregularities in supply of prana to different parts of the Annamaya body, manifesting as disturbed functions.
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
Also known as functional bowel disorder, this is a condition characterised by disturbed motility of the large intestine leading to an error of propulsion of its contents. As the word indicates, there is no damage to the intestine and hence is not a killer disease but it could be a great nuisance to life.
Normally the food that we consume passes through 30 feet length of the small intestine, wherein the digestion and absorption of all nutrients have been completed before it reaches the large intestine. The large intestine has one major function namely, to absorb the valuable water and salts and pass on the faeces (the solid waste material that you get rid of when you go to the toilet विष्ठा, मल) into the waste bin, the rectum. From here the expulsion of faeces is subject to orders from the higher brain which decides to empty the bowel depending on the time, place and circumstances.
As you know, emptying of the bowel normally has become a biological rhythm (a 24-hour cycle) which is trained by the parents in early childhood. A healthy cycle is to empty the bowel once a day early in the morning. Disturbances of this rhythm lead to irregularities of bowel habits termed IBS resulting in either constipation or diarrhoea.
What is bowel motility and how is it controlled?
The large intestine has two types of movements:
Type 1: Move the contents around within the intestine without moving them forward, known as segmental shuttle contractions. This aids in gaining time and contact with the lining of the colon for the absorption of the water and salts.
Type 2: A mass movements which squeezes the faeces onwards into the rectum called peristaltic contractions. This is activated early in the morning when you wake up or after breakfast.
These movements caused by the contraction and relaxation of the thin layer of muscles in the large intestine are guided by the nerves from the brain. The parasympathetic nerves stimulate peristalsis and hence ensures emptying of the bowel whereas the sympathetic encourages the holding in of the contents. Further, near the terminal part of the rectum, the anus, there are sphincter muscles which are also supplied by nerves from the higher brain i.e., the voluntary nervous system.
Thus, an act of emptying of bowels is guided by increased peristaltic movements of the large intestine, which sends up a message to the brain. The brain (in turn the mind) senses this as an urge to empty the bowel. The mind now decides whether the time and place are congenial (availability of an acceptable clean toilet etc.), sends down the message via parasympathetic and the voluntary nerves to the anal sphincters(which are normally held constantly contracted) to relax and the bowel are emptied.
The role of the psyche is very important even in the normal daily emptying of the bowel. Similar to all other biological functions, in man, unlike the animals, the basic instincts like hunger, sleep, bowels, sex are all under the control of the psyche. This is considered as the component of mastery that is unique to the human race. The mind has the ability to develop this mastery.
आहार निद्रा भय मैथुनं च
सामान्यमेतत् पशुभिर्नराणाम् ।
धर्मो हि तेषामधिको विशेष:
धर्मेण हीनाः पशुभिः समानाः ॥
dharmo hi teṣhāmadhiko visheṣho
dharmeṇa hīnāḥ pashubhiḥ samānāḥ
“ Hunger, sleep, fear and procreative instincts are common to man and animals. The discriminating faculty or the capacity to master these instincts is the factor that distinguishes the human race from animals. A person who does not develop and nurture this mastery is no different from animals”.
When the mind is disturbed or overworked or speed up, it leads to erratic functioning of the nervous system. The surges from the emotional cortex working through overstimulation of hypothalamus pass down the sympathetic & parasympathetic channels similar to what happened in the upper part of the digestive system (the stomach).
This imbalance manifests as irritability of the bowel. Repeated excessive activation of the emptying nerve (parasympathetic) leads to frequency, urgency and also a feeling of incomplete emptying of the bowel. The urge to empty (feeling of incomplete emptying) is to be interpreted as a bad habit of the parasympathetic nerve that has forgotten to stop working even after the bowel is emptied. It goes on sending information that there is some more waste material to be emptied.
This is the component of uncontrolled hyper-reactivity or hyperirritability of the nervous system. If the hyper-reactivity is prominent in the sympathetic nerves (the holding nerve responsible for the segmental shuttle contractions), it becomes difficult to empty the bowel leading to constipation. If the hyper-reactivity is in the parasympathetic nerves (the emptying nerve it leads to the increased frequency with diarrhoea). Also, these contractions or spasms, when aggravated can manifest as pain in the abdomen.
This is how you suffer from periods of alternating diarrhoea and constipation with or without cramps in the abdomen. This hyper-reactivity of the nerves at the bowel levels is, therefore, a manifestation of the excited un-controlled surges of activity in the higher brain. This in turn is a manifestation of your personality as an IBS person. You seem to have a characteristic nature of being almost obsessive about cleanliness, perfection, and being sticky about your ideas, concepts, ambitions etc.
Now you can see how obsessed you have become about wanting to empty the waste bin several times in a day instead of once a day, sometimes going on to the other extreme of not emptying it all for 2 to 3 days. As the problem persists, you tend to get more and more anxious and develop phobias, maybe about cancer of the bowel or your future disability. This can only aggravate the condition. Thus it is all in the mind, in your nature, in your habits, in your fears and suppressions. Hence the answer must be within.
The first step in the treatment is to come out of the super-added fears and phobias. Accept that: “ it is my nature, my lifestyle, and my personality that has to change to cure my problem of IBS''.
You must first get convinced that you can help yourself by retraining your autonomic nervous system to get out of this bad habit of getting stuck in the loop of hyper-reactivity.
The techniques of yoga explained here in ReDiscover ThySelf are basically to help you to completely reverse this loop of uncontrolled surges of neuronal activities that start off from the mind to reach the bowel. Regular practice of this integrated approach of yoga has helped a large number of subjects to help themselves and be free from their IBS.
What is ulcerative colitis?
Also called Idiopathic Inflammatory bowel Disorder or Functional Bowel Disorder, this is another stress-related problem characterized by episodes of continuous diarrhoea with blood and mucus. This is due to inflammation (a fight) in the inner lining of the large intestine and rectum. The complaints of this disease could vary from just a nuisance with periods of mild bloody diarrhoea lasting 6 to 8 weeks to a severe blood loss requiring emergency surgery.
Researchers continue to search for the cause of this condition Although no definite cause can be pointed out, we have moved a long way in our search. Some germs E.Coli, campylobacter, yersinia have been found but none of them is the cause of the disease. Milk allergy and autoimmunity with a psychosomatic effect are also being pointed out as the cause.
What is autoimmunity?
The immune system is the defence system in our body equipped with different types of white blood cells to fight any dangerous invasion by enemy bacteria, viruses, foreign bodies or even transplant tissue. This defence is just like the security force of a country on its borders.
The radars sense the energy movements, the soldiers send the information to the Commander in Chief, who considers the messages, decides on war, assembles suitable regiments, who wait for their orders and the war is triggered off. Continuous moment to moment monitoring goes on until the war is over. The entire country is put under vigilance and in coordination.
All other activities, such as celebrations are deferred, except for the basic needs. A very similar phenomenon occurs within our body. The White blood corpuses (WBCs) sense the invader. Messages are sent to the base headquarters, the lymph nodes and thymus, where the decision is made to trigger off the fight. Intricate details are noted about the type, quantity, quality and severity of the invasion before decisions are made about what type of army cell (lymphocyte, eosinophils or monocytes,) or chemicals (antibodies, compliments, local hormones) are asked to go to the site.
These are carried through bloodstream and warfare (inflammation) takes place. The white blood cells and the chemical fighters surround the invader, break the bacterial cell wall and dissolve the cell material. In the process, the WBCs are themselves destroyed. After all the germs or foreign material are destroyed the debris liquifies (pus) and is thrown out and healing begins by filling up the damaged area by the surrounding healthy tissue or scar tissue. Of all the steps involved in this complex immune process, the most important and sensitive issue is the capacity of the WBCs to sense danger and differentiate foreign cells from its own cells.
This is a unique and most highly evolved faculty that is specific to a race or an individual. Your immune cells do this by identifying the chemical differences between the protein of the foreign cell and your own body cells.
Stress,Psyche & Auto -immunity
The big question that is being asked is why did the WBCs act like this? What made the WBCs do this? What made the WBCs misbehave this way and what made them lose their capacity to differentiate self from non-self?
More and more evidences are accumulating to show that this is because of the central nervous system. The central nervous system (CNS) has well established intricate feed back connections with the immune system, through the nervous endings and the neuro-transmitter chemicals. If the CNS is disturbed the whole chain of events get disturbed.