Can you stomach a deeper dive into the digestion system? We have chewed through the process of mastication and gulped down the movements of swallowing.  At this point in digestion, food has been broken down enough for enzymes to chemically transform it into smaller, usable nutrients. We’re headed downstream in the alimentary canal to the stomach and intestines. These areas, though out of conscious control, are still subject to issues arising from habitual muscular tension.

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 has the ability to contract and expand. To make room for expansion, the stomach muscle’s 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 abdominal organs and their proximity to the diaphragm–your innermost postural muscle.

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 and imbalance in our stomach muscles.

In 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 of the tubes of our digestive system.

Next week we’ll tie our anatomy to our practice with some moves to help you with the abdominal portion of digestion.

Liked this article? Read Recalibrate Your State

Jessie Dwiggins

Yoga and mindful-eating helps Jessie reconnect to and appreciate her body and what it can do. Her goal is to bring her students the very best of what she is living and learning and to keep her classes real and honest. Jessie is known for her hands on approach and as an articulate teacher, so students can listen and go inward if they choose. Her personal style of teacher blends alignment and magical movements – techniques to unwind habitual body tension and pose add-ons to make shapes strong and comfortable. Together, with Jessie’s mindful-eating classes, students learn why, when, what, how, and how much to eat and where they invest their energy back into their lives. Jessie 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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Clarissa Stewart

Thank you for the refresher on digestion. I’m really excited to use the coregeous ball with some of my clients with digestive issues related to stress. I also like how you talked about how stress literally ties our stomaches into knots.

Sara Dewhurst

Thanks for the info about digestion. I wonder if I too have chronic tightness in my abdomin muslces from being stressed, as I have problems with digestion. I will try to relax them more when I am not in an active state!

Anthony

You know… I wonder if what was written is the real cause of Crohn’s disease and ileac disorders.

Virginia

Enter..Coregeous ball to relax all of that involuntary abdominal tightness!!!! Thank you for this article 🙂

Jenny

This is so interesting to see how the contraction of the abdominal muscles – whether in fight-or-flight or to pull the belly in – can affect digestion. I know the digestive tract well, but not so much the effect of the muscles on them. Can’t wait to read more!

Freia Ramsey

Love this explanation of the relationship between digestive health and stress due to chronically tight abdominal muscles. It’s a different perspective then I’ve thought about before. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Katelyn

Yes- I have felt all of they above affect my digestive tract. Being a ‘slow digester’ to begin with Ive had to watch all of these external factors. The most difficult being chronic stress. Having little ones in a loud house makes for a lot of ‘walking on eggshells’ which usually is accompanied by clenching of the abdominals. Im looking forward to checking out your next article. Thanks

Kristin Kandyba

Interesting! While I’ve always been fascinated with the systems and functions of the body, I never knew that the muscles around the GI tract could affect digestion.

Martine Lauzon

I am quite fascinated by this subject! As a Health Coach, I am loving what I am learning about the relation of muscles on digestion. I can’t wait to read your next article on suggested moves!

Katherine

It’s so easy to assume the health of our digestive system has mainly to do with what we eat (sensitivities, allergies) and stress levels, and overlook the basic connection to the muscular structures that encase the organs. Chronic tightness in any of the abdominal muscles would naturally lead to dysfunction in the organs. Another great Yoga Tune Up reminder of why we do these exercises: to live better in our bodies!

BEVERLYN BAER

I’ve had to change my diet multiple times in order to ease bloat, and other digestion discomforts. It was because of shotty digestion that I started becoming hyper aware of how I eat, when I eat, and what I eat, and I love learning even more that can aid in that process. I know the parasympathetic NS plays a big role in digestion, but I wasn’t aware that tight clothes could wreak some havoc. Thanks for the info!

Dana

Curious what the YTU perspective is on whether there are any poses that can aid digestion?

Véronique Lamothe

I am seriously thinking about introducing coregeous ball into my pilates classes in the fall. To be continued…

Alyssa P

I recently wrote a blog post about how much I love Judith Lasater because she discusses how important it is to soften the belly in restorative yoga. This blog post hits home for me because it puts even more meat on the bones of that argument. Thanks again for the reminder about restrictive clothing – it’s so much a part of the wardrobe of a yoga teacher that we don’t thing of what we wear as much as what we “do” – so thanks for including!

Lorraine

This is a fascinating blog post. As a yoga teacher and a “healthy eater” I would consider myself quite body aware. However, I’ve forgotten about the roll of the core muscles in digestion and have never thought about the effects of wearing restrictive clothing.

Shelly Lutz

Such a great reminder of the nervous system response during stress, and how that affects digestion! I know that stress always freezes my bowels, but I forgot why! Even more important to learn how to down regulate the nervous system so it doesn’t start causing gut issues when there is a stare of constant stress.

Jamie Saltmarsh

There is so much attention placed on breath awareness in yoga, and for good reason. There should be as much emphasis placed on the digestive process as well. Maybe we should all share a healthy snack after hatha yoga, and focus a few minutes on mindful chewing, swallowing and digesting.

Louise LeGouis

Just posted a comment but not sure if it made it – your blog reminded me that I’m ever so grateful I didn’t live in the age of the corset. It’s also an inspiration to work on my posture for yet another reason: better digestion. Looking forward to reading your other blogs on digestion.

Louise LeGouis

First I gave up the tight jeans, then I gave up belts, I am ever so grateful I didn’t have to live in the time of corsets! I do have to work some work on that slumping however… I look forward to reading your other blogs on the digestive system.

Kammy Fung

Love all the information. The abdominal organs are encapsulated by the transverse abdominis, internal obliques, and external obliques. Misconception of a slimmer midsection with support of closets or skinny jean restrict the nature movement of the abdominal cavity. The low grade stress change the body response to the digestion. Low quality stomach acid is secreted while we are in flight and fight response. Blood draw to muscle and away from digestion system. Less blood circulation is on wall of the stomach wall. Stomach can not be function property.

Adeline

Thank you for this article. I had surgery to my lower abdomen to remove an inflamed appendix almost 20 years ago, but there are still days, when i can still feel the pull/tug on the side that was operated on. And funnily enough, if i recall correctly, during times I’m stressed out.

David

Great informational post on how our nervous systems in chronic “fight or flight” stress can cause us to block our digestive process. On top of that, there are so many people (myself included!) who often eat when they are stressed – causing even more back up and work for digestive organs. Helpful article to bring some awareness to our insides!

Catherine RL

Another fantastic blog explaining a significant aspect of digestion and how stress affects digestion.
Thank you

sue okuda

Thanks for tackling a subject most people don’t want to even think about — our amazing gut, what it does, and how it works. And now we know it has its own “brain,” the enteric nervous system. Lots to study and explore.

Morgana Tessler

Thank your for this simple, yet well- explained article on how everything from our clothing, to posture, to eating habits impacts digestion.
One thing I have always been confused about is how much abdominal tension is good? After having been in physical therapy for a lower back issue and becoming more aware of the importance of engaging my transverse abdominis I am not clear if it is a good idea to always have a little core engagement when walking?

Luz Garcia

Great post. The digestive system is one of my favorites because I’ve struggled with digestive issues since childhood. This forced me to develop extra awareness and opened my curiosity to learn more about foods that were best for my digestion. My grandfather taught me to chew my food 40 or more times lol! I’m a very slow eater and always the last at the dinner table. I’ve found with yoga and self abdominal massage a great way to calm my simpathetic nervous system, relaxing my abdominal muscles improving my digestion and wellbeing in general.

Ella

I have noticed in myself and talked to friends about trouble with digestion in times of ongoing stress.
Down regulating out of the fight of flight response will be my strategy next time the stress kicks in.
Thanks Jessie.

Jasmine Ellemo

Easy well thought out information on the digestive organs. I will share this with my students so we can all become more aware of our insides!

Kim

What a wonderous organism we are! This has been a most fascinating and educational ride through our digestive tract! There’s a whole sequence of pre-dinner ball rolling in these articles that I’m going to start doing!

KAREN

thank you! I sometimes over-activate my abdominals and I can see if in my breathing after this article.

Mary

Thank you, Jessie, for another fascinating article – I love to learn about the inner workings of our digestive system and how our actions can help or hinder digestion. I am working on finding the balance between keeping my core engaged for good posture while also keeping my abdominal muscles slack enough to enable good digestion. After reading your articles, I am more aware of the effects my “vanity” clothing (hello, high-waisted jeans, I’m talking to you) might have on this process and making a conscious decision about whether is it “worth it” to wear them regularly. I am also… Read more »

Pascale hazledine

I never realized how filling your stomach too much impacts the diaphragm.the Japanese tradition of sitting in the floor in hero pose while eating is a great way to keep space for your breath.this does not mean that you can fill your stomach more.i also did not consider that the obliques and transverse abdominal muscles are involved in digestion.great article.restrictive clothing has always bothered my stomach now I know why.

Alex Salomons

I have recently over the past 4 or 5 months been introduced to the coregeous ball and taken the “science of rolling” and “sequencing and innovation”. I was never aware that we hold so much stress and tension through our abdomens, along with this area being the epicenter of our body and minds emotional load and stress. I still continue to be blown away with the effects I get from abdominal work. It has given me such a great outlet to access my physical and emotional stress and trauma.

Janelle Schiavi

Thank you for this article! It is so fascinating how quicken my stomach can go from completely relaxed to very tense with stress. I’ve always had a sensitive stomach so reading about the intricacies of how it works has really opened my eyes to how the system works. I never thought about restrictive clothing having such an impact of the organs. Never thought about it honestly. Thank for sharing this.

Torie

I find it fascinating how much the body and mind are linked, and how constant stress can reinforce abdominal muscle contraction, thus disrupting a smooth digestive process. The Courgeous ball has also been an amazing tool for helping with unclodigestive blockages

Janice McFarland

Your deeper dive into our digestive system was very clear and informative. Thank you. I now have a much clearer understanding of the role that our abdominal and digestive areas play in the health of our body as a whole. Stress, tight-fitting clothing, improper posture, fight or flight response – lots to think about.

Mari

I find it interesting how the state of flight or fight with tension throughout the body includes abdominal muscles and how stress is one of the original origin of chronic stress. Also how some tight clothing choices can constrict abdominal activity, restrict relaxation and narrows tubes of digestive system. Something important for all of us to be aware of. Looking forward to your next post. Thank you

Kelly

A great reminder of how the dominant culture creates norms and people follow to fit a certain mould (appearance) – SPANX and other restrictive clothing! Thanks for the specifics in describing how everything is connected.

bee pallomina

I had never thought of the role of the abdominals muscles as being involved in digestion totally makes sense. I find it really interesting what you say about compressive clothing. I wonder if there is a degrees of compression which are ok. For example most of the clothes women wear to practice yoga are somewhat compressive. Is this having an effect on our practice?

Regina

This is food for thought information. Thank you now I am looking forward to the next post. I love how these blogs make me stop and think.

AJ Olszewski

I agree with Kamilla, had zero idea the obliques tied in with digestion!

Mairin McCracken

So interesting that wearing tight-fitting clothing such as spanks can actually put stress on our internal organs and negatively impact our digestion process!

Kamilla Vaksman

I didn’t know external obliques play a role in digestive function. Thank you foe ducating me!

Andi

Yoga makes you focus on your body and allow you to release the tension from daily stress. Gastrointestinal problems can cause pain and poor health throughout the whole body but having self awareness can be the key to knowing the cause and effectively reducing the problems.

Bree

Thanks so much for this! I just finished day 1 of the level 1 YTU today. Having had an abdominal surgery when I was about 10, I can feel not only the tissues on that side changing in response to the scar tissue from all these years, but I also feel it’s starting to affect my digestion-everything just sort of getting stuck on the left side, the side my surgery was on. I’m stoked to keep investigating this throughout the rest of the training!