During my cancer treatment a good friend Gareth Toner, a Craniosacral Therapist kept harping on about meditation and how it would relieve stress, improve digestion, immunity, health and well-being; I just nodded and said I knew but I didn’t know anything about it. I’m an ‘A Type’ personality, which probably rings true for a lot of elite sports performers, and found it very difficult to relax in a meditative way; there was always too much noise in my head; when I tried to relax, the simplest thoughts took a journey of their own and made me feel worse.
I moved to Hong Kong nine months ago and started yoga immediately as I knew I would have to manage my stress levels to stay healthy. The slow, long meditative breathing into each stretch felt great and I was able to lose the noise in my head for 75 minutes twice a week. Another bonus from the class was that it improved my digestion and bowel movements which made me feel fantastically energetic, so I started to read further into breathing, digestion and health.
Breathing is a vital function that we take for granted and most of us who live in a fast paced environment breathe in short, sharp movements from our chest and not deeply into our gut; this is where the problems all begin. By not taking slow, deep breaths, we are restricting the oxygen flow to our gut, one of the most important areas of our body. Through this restriction of oxygen we are upsetting the digestive system and causing all types of issues that are very common in the fast paced life we live e.g. IBS, bloating, gas, and frequent bouts of illness from poor immunity. We have become well adapted to these illnesses and can cope very well but what if we all just stopped for 10 minutes a day and gave ourselves time to breathe, really breathe?
Experts have shown that deep breathing into the gut can:
1. Reduce stress hormones and the “fight or flight” response to everyday stressful situations
2. Get rid of waste products from the body more efficiently thus improving digestion and therefore immunity
3. Provide the body with more oxygen therefore allowing the muscles to work more efficiently during training
As a performance nutritionist, I try to obtain the whole picture before prescribing strategies on digestion issues to athletes. In addition to monitoring the types of food athletes ingest, I ask them about their daily lifestyle to monitor stress levels and I quite often recommend that they find time to relax and improve their breathing technique. Now, I would love to suggest that athletes head out for two yoga sessions a week in addition to all the other training sessions they do but this is not always practical. I do however, recommend using an app call ‘Headspace’. This app allows the athlete to take ’10 minutes’ out of their busy training schedule for some ‘me time’ breathing and relaxation. So far, I have had excellent feedback from those athletes who have used the app; they have felt a shift in their stress levels and found that their digestive issues have calmed down.
I am not suggesting that breathing will cure all gut and digestive issues but it may help reduce some of the symptoms. If you are reading this, you may be a busy age grouper who is trying to fit in work, family and training with no time for ‘me time’ but it is very important to your health and sports performance that you learn to breathe more efficiently. The ‘Headspace” app is great as it allows you to pop your earphones in on the train, bus, plane, toilet or office and take some time out.
Have a go, be kind to yourself and breathe. Let me know if you see a positive change in your digestion and sports performance.