We come across many individuals who do not realize the depth of inter-connectivity between organ systems. They assume that an ailment that affects one system does not affect another. At some point, most of us have experienced some type of digestive problem. Have you ever thought about how the digestive system might be affected by breathing? Can the quality of your breathe determine the quality of your digestion? What is the relationship? One obvious connection is that we need to breathe well to oxygenate the body’s organs properly for optimal health. Isn’t there also a connection as far as movement is concerned? This post will focus specifically on the relationship between the lungs and the digestive organ ( stomach, intestines, liver and pancreas) through the lens of movement.
Optimally, during inhalation, the central tendon of the diaphragm moves downward and the lungs expand. Hopefully, we see the ribs move and the expansion of the lungs and central tendon of the diapragm pushes down and the internal organs are shifted. The belly may even protrude (especially if one is in a position where the transversus abdominus is not contracted). On the exhalation the lungs collapse, the central tendon rises, the ribs fall back into place as do the organs that had shifted in response. I love how Kim describes these organs as “dancing” with every breath. Such a helpful visual! This “dance” helps to further facilitate natural processes like digestion of food by enzymes, peristalsis (the snakelike movement that moves the contents of the gut along), absorption of nutrients into the small intestine, absorption of fluids in the large intestine and elimination of waste.
In fact, this movement of lungs and organs may be the reason that certain yoga poses like forward bends have been prescribed to assist with digestion and elimination. The enteric nervous system, which is one of the three branches of our autonomic nervous system, lines the walls of the digestive system from the esophagus to the anus. When the receptors of this system are stimulated by touch, they cause paristaltic contractions of the gut. Poses, like seated forward bends that can gently compress the digestive organs combined with steady and calm breathing may in fact stimulate the enteric nerves in a positive way. But if one is uncomfortable during such a posture and finds the compression stifling, alarming, or inhibiting to the breath the result can be a negative stimulation that can further impact digestive issues. This is a wonderful example of how the ability to relax, particularly through a breath practice, can allow digestion to be guided by the enteric and parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic branch is another branch of the autonomic nervous system and is known as the “rest and digest” portion and is associated with being in a more relaxed state as opposed to the sympathetic branch, which is known as the “fight or flight” branch. Existing in this relaxed state is what allows for optimal digestion.
If you are not experiencing all the lovely movement mentioned above there could be several reasons why the organs are not receptive to the expansion of the lungs and push of the central tendon. Tension held in the abdominal muscles, diaphragm and even the intestines themselves will interrupt the receptivity. The entire process is affected and ultimately can negatively impact one’s ability to eliminate.
Conversely, from the bottom up: If you overeat and bloat your belly you won’t leave much room for your diaphragm to function, therefore decreasing the amount of space and movement your lungs have to allow for air. Ever notice that your breathing may be a bit shallow after a large meal? That’s why it’s important to learn the difference between being satisfied and being overly full when eating.
So how do you work on this? A breathing practice and exercise can help. That’s why yoga can be such an effective tool for helping you get in touch with your body and how you breathe. So next time you approach your practice try focusing on pranayama.