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 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.