Meditation is a practice cemented in the history of humankind across many populations. More recent findings have discovered a link between meditation and improved gut health. Here, we will be discussing the relationship between the two.
Gut Health 101
To understand how meditation can impact the gut, we must understand why gut health matters at all. Looking after your gut microbiome is crucial to supporting overall health and avoiding unpleasant symptoms. The gut runs all the way from the mouth to the anus and is made up of what are referred to as “hollow organs” and “solid organs”.
The hollow organs are the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus. The solid ones are the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. All these are working together to digest what is put into your body is called the gastrointestinal tract.1
When we talk about gut health, we normally talk about the gut microbiome. Due to extensive research in the medical field, we now know that healthy gut flora is mostly responsible for our overall health.2
Normal human gut microbiota consists of trillions of good and bad bacteria, with over 100 trillion of just the good kind. Each person has a unique microbiome, impacted by genetics, environment, food, illness, disease, hydration levels and age.
When the gut is balanced, it functions well and benefits our overall health. When it’s not balanced, it has been linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome or disease, metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes, and allergic diseases such as atopic dermatitis or asthma.
Stress can harm gut health; it is our body’s natural reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. It most commonly occurs when we feel a situation is out of our control or incapable of managing the issue.3
Stress comes in two forms:3
- Acute stress occurs almost immediately after an upsetting or unexpected event and lasts for a short period. It can be very intense for some.
- Chronic stress lasts for a longer period or is recurring. If you have constant pressure, you may experience chronic stress.
When stressed, particularly with an acute stress response, we sometimes feel the urgent need to go to the loo. A huge part of this feeling we experience is serotonin.
95% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter and hormone, is made in the gut. Serotonin allows us to feel happy and moves food along the gastrointestinal tract. When we experience a stressful event, the amount of serotonin produced in our gut increases, which can cause spasms throughout the colon.4
This stress response in the gut can be helped with regular meditation. But how? Keep reading to find out!
Meditation is considered a mind-body complementary medicine. It is a holistic approach in which an individual silently focuses one’s mind for a period of time as a relaxation method or for religious or spiritual purposes. It can include chanting instead of being performed in silence.5
During meditation, the aim is generally to reach a deep state of relaxation and tranquillity, eliminating jumbled thoughts and finding a calm stream of consciousness to remove the stress caused by a crowded mind.6
Meditation’s roots go back to 5000-3500 BCE. Wall art paintings show people sitting in meditative-like seated postures with eyes half-closed. This is presumed to be a state of deep meditation and is the oldest documented form of meditation.7
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety by lowering the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) produced.8 It can also improve sleep quality by increasing natural melatonin levels, leading to restful sleep that benefits overall health.9
Other benefits of meditation include enhanced focus and concentration, a boosted immune function through reduced inflammation and improved cellular health and a positive impact on overall well-being by reducing stress and promoting relaxation, which is beneficial for physical and mental health.
The Link between Meditation and Gut Health
As we have learnt, stress can negatively affect gut health, including altering the gut microbiome and causing inflammation. Chronic inflammation can have negative effects on gut health. Meditation has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, which may benefit gut health.
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation, which may benefit gut health. Studies have shown that stress can negatively affect the gut microbiome, and relaxation techniques like meditation may help counteract these effects. A 2018 study on participants with IBS found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program improved the gut microbiome and reduced inflammation.10
Another benefit meditation can provide includes the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls various bodily functions, including digestion. Meditation has been shown to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which may improve digestion and overall gut health.
It is safe to say that more research is needed to understand the link between meditation and gut health fully. Although it is a relatively new area of study, there is promising evidence to suggest that regular meditation may benefit gut health by reducing stress, promoting relaxation, and improving overall well-being.
Tips for Incorporating Meditation into Your Routine
Knowing where to begin with meditation can be daunting; if you’ve never done it before, it can seem like a minefield of conflicting information about what is best. The truth is, whatever feels most comfortable for you is what’s best. Don’t be afraid to try a few techniques until you find your groove!
The first important step to incorporating meditation into your routine is to find a comfortable, quiet and potentially private space to complete your meditation. Sit comfortably; if you are uncomfortable, you will find it hard to focus and relax.
Once you are comfortable, focus on regulating your breathing. This is important for centring yourself and getting into the level of focus you need to meditate. Starting small with just 5 minutes, 3 times a week, can help you to get into it without feeling overwhelmed.
Once your breathing is regulated, start to centre your thoughts. It’s perfectly normal for your mind to wander into the chaos-like consciousness many of us experience. When this happens, simply acknowledge it and attempt to clear your mind again.
You can build up to 30 minutes daily if this works for you. Expert meditators explain that you likely won’t feel the benefit immediately. It takes regular practice to notice meditation benefiting your physical and mental health.11
Although the benefits of meditation on gut and overall health are newly studied, the evidence so far is promising. Decreasing inflammation, improving bowel regularity, reducing cortisol levels and increasing melanin production can all positively affect the body.
Remember, meditation is all about relaxation. There is an abundance of podcasts, apps and YouTube videos out there that can help you meditate if you find it helpful! Meditation is not a one-size-fits-all; whatever works for you is the right way to do it.