You may not have heard of gastroparesis before, but chances are that if you have heard of it, you or someone you know has been affected by it. Although relatively unknown, gastroparesis is a chronic digestive problem which affects hundreds of thousands of individuals in the US alone, and it is estimated that there is a large number of individuals who have the beginnings of the condition or a less severe case, who go undiagnosed.
This condition paralyzes the stomach, preventing normal muscle contractions which propel matter through the digestive system, resulting in extremely slow digestion. This causes symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, acid reflux, abdominal pain, and weight fluctuations (AlterG, 2017). Those affected by gastroparesis have serious problems digesting food and are sometimes left with no option but to eat small liquid meals to sustain themselves. Not only that, but research increasingly links gut health to brain health, meaning that depression, anxiety, fatigue, and other threats to mental health may go hand-in-hand with this condition. There is no singular cause for gastroparesis, but it is thought to be related to diabetes or a virus. While mediations exist for gastroparesis, many affected with the condition find them ineffective.
“I experimented with a plethora of oral medications, most of which provided little relief and massive side effects. At one point, I was prescribed a medication normally reserved for severely ill cancer patients…My doctors told me that I would likely never be able to eat solid food again. I was put on a liquid diet, with few calories, nutrients or fiber.”
These are the reflections of Dempsey Marks, a teenager who was affected by the condition unusually early in life (it typically affects people in adulthood). She remembers transforming from a healthy, active teen into someone who could barely get out of bed.
But one day, a cardiologist told Dempsey something that changed her whole perspective on her disease and her method of treatment: He told me that I had probably staved off the disease for years because of my active life. He noted that my condition deteriorated after my active, athletic school lifestyle ended. He noted that research reveals that digestion is aided by exercise, saying “Fight through the pain and vomiting and exercise as often and rigorously as possible,” (Marks, 2018.) This was the moment that movement began to change the health of Dempsy’s body and mind for the better.
Exercise aids the digestive system
This life-changing advice given to Dempsey by her cardiologist is based in fairly simple anatomy. Since gastroparesis inhibits the normal contractions of the digestive system, exercise and the accompanying muscular contractions can supplement and stimulate the body’s natural digestive contractions. Exercise helps to stimulate appetite, facilitate bowel movements, and improve movement and general well-being in those affected by gastroparesis. (AlterG, 2017). Given recent research linking gut health to brain health, it is likely that this important lifestyle change also had benefits for Dempsey’s mental health. It is this holistic aspect of yoga as a healing modality which helps to distinguish the unique perspective and path toward wellness that yoga offers to those affected by gut conditions like gastroparesis.
Agni: Yoga of Digestion
Yoga practice, in particular, may offer some specific benefits to those affected by gastroparesis. Yoga offers unique perspectives through which cognitive and kinesthetic sensibilities develop in the practitioner to help increase not only mindful awareness of health, but also the practitioner’s sense of wellbeing. When applied to gastroparesis, this yogic perspective begins with the bandhas. Bandhas are energetic or muscular contractions which direct the flow of prana (breath or life force) and provide structural support for the body on and off the mat.
Uddiyana (to rise) bandha is located at the navel/solar plexus, also known as the Manipura chakra. To engage uddiyana bandha in practice is to draw the entire abdominal wall in and up from the navel to diaphragm. This physiological alignment is often taught to protect the low back, but for those with Gastroparesis, it has a much more important energetic function: it fires up Agni.
Agni is known as the digestive fire and is the force which absorbs and assimilates things into our being. Whether it be thoughts, foods, emotions, Agni is the force which metabolizes that which we intake and allows us to transform these into energy that serves us. Without this digestive fire, you are left with a body which struggles to energize, fuel, and process. Additionally, Agni regulates the adrenal glands and when activated, increases a sense of vitality and decreases anxiety.
When we activate uddiyana bandha, we are engaging Agni, we are stimulating the digestive musculature and causing the expansion and contraction of this area helps to push the digestive matter through the digestive tract and stimulates metabolism. For those affected by gastroparesis, this practice actually manually does the work that their disease prevents the natural occurrence of in their bodies. When we practice engaging uddiyana bandha on the mat, we familiarize our body, mind, and spirit with how it feels to engage this digestive force of Agni. Having trained the body on the mat, we can then take this engagement into life off the mat to stimulate digestion and provide for more easeful and healthy living with gastroparesis.
Breath techniques and asana (postures) which engages the core may be particularly helpful to those affected by gastroparesis. For instance, Agni Sara, a breathing technique which requires forceful contraction and release of the abdominal muscles may be a particularly helpful practice. Additionally, core work and twists are sure to benefit those affected by gastroparesis (Stephanie, 2012).
Thus, yoga may offer a uniquely holistic perspective on exercise for digestion which offers several health-enhancing benefits on a physical, mental, and spiritual level to those affected by gastroparesis. Not only that but regular exercise and yoga practice, in particular, have transformed the lives of many affected by the condition, including Dempsey.
Transform Your Digestion with Agni
It is apparent based on both anecdotal information and research that exercise practices alleviate gastroparesis symptoms. Yoga offers a unique holistic perspective that cultivates mindfulness for healthy digestion. Not just that, but gut health is increasingly linked to mental health as research begins to uncover the interplay between belly and brain!
In honor of this incredible research and gastroparesis awareness month, we invite you to transform your sense of wellbeing and fire up your digestion by joining us for a yoga class!
Find our schedule HERE!
D. Marks. (2018). ‘How exercise helped me recover from an illness when medicine failed.’ Better. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/fitnessrx-how-exercise-helped-me-recover-illness-when-medicine-couldn-ncna839121
Alter G. (2017). Exercises that can help alleviate gastroparesis symptoms. https://www.alterg.com/treadmill-training-rehab/athletics/exercises-that-can-help-alleviate-gastroparesis-symptoms
Stephanie. (2012). Yoga for Gastroparesis. Journey with Gastroparesis. https://mygastroparesisjourney.blogspot.com/2012/01/yoga-for-gastroparesis.html