I can still remember the first time I was dragged to a yoga class by my friend Lana.
Lana had a rough couple of years packed with extreme stress that manifested into some difficult physical symptoms. From psoriasis to chronic migraines and severe irregularity, Lana used to tell me all the time how much she struggled with her health—both physically and mentally. Then, she found yoga.
Like so many other testimonies I've heard on the mat, within a few months of a consistent beginner's practice, my very cynical and downtrodden friend was suddenly feeling better than ever.
She was waking up eager to greet the day. Her skin was clearing up. She was even experiencing "business as usual" every single day, which was unheard of in her former years. Plus, because she was eating so well, she felt better all around. She was still experiencing stress but was learning how to handle it so that she no longer held onto it within her body.
It was a yoga miracle.
As a microbiological researcher, I was fascinated by her journey. I've spent my days studying the implicit effects of probiotic bacteria within the human microbiome. I've pored over the studies. I've researched extensive scientific publications about lactobacillus and bifidobacteria and other mysteriously powerful microorganisms found in the ecosystem of the human digestive tract (that's where a great deal of your most influential microbes live).
I know firsthand that our energy levels, how we think and feel each day, the vitality of our skin, and the health of our digestive and immune systems stem from the happenings within the gut environment.
So, imagine my intrigue when here was my once-not-so-healthy friend Lana, clearly suffering from a major imbalance in her gut microbiota, now experiencing the exact same benefits that I'd expect to see in someone with high amounts of diverse and beneficial bacteria within their gut environment simply by implementing a daily yoga practice and adjusting some lifestyle choices.
What was going on? At very least, I knew her gut health was shifting for the better and that yoga—somehow, some way—was an affecting variable.
To better understand how Lana's practice was positively influencing her gut health, I tracked down the latest research to help explain exactly how the healing powers of yoga might be able to improve the health of the gut environment and, thus, lead to happier, healthier days.
The critical importance of a healthy gut environment.
You see, your gut is a little like your body's headquarters—filled with trillions of helpful bacteria scurrying about to digest your food, regulate your weight, balance your immune system, give you energy, communicate with your brain, and ensure all systems are functioning properly.
However, what I also know to be true is that stress and aspects of our modern lifestyle tend to create a deadly combination for our good-guy gut bugs, often wiping them out in droves. In fact, here's a quick list of things that can deplete your beneficial gut bacteria and negatively affect your health:
- The natural aging process
- Chronic stress
- Antibiotics and other common medicines
- Environmental toxins
- Household and personal cleaning products
- Processed foods and meals filled with way too much sugar
- Exposure to cigarette smoke
Sadly, microbial depletion is so common that most of us unknowingly struggle with its domino effects on our overall feelings of wellness.
What happens when your gut bacteria are unbalanced?
Since about 80 percent of your immune system lives and breathes within the inner workings of the gut environment, if you don't have enough life-giving microbes to keep things healthy, you can go from feeling like a well-oiled machine to a sputtering dumptruck before you're able to put the pieces together.
It also means that despite your best efforts to eat well, stay hydrated, go to bed early, and manage your lifestyle choices, a lack of energy, a weak immune system, and erratic digestion may be inevitable if your gut microbiome isn't in great shape—and stress is a major contributor to depressing the entire system.
Stress, movement, and your microbes: What's the connection?
After assessing Lana's experience, I mapped her journey from physical despair to her perceived health benefits from her yoga practice to offer a clearer picture of her newfound health from a microbial standpoint, focusing on what may be occurring within the delicate world of her gut environment.
After conferring with my team, we found that two key aspects of yoga truly coincide with a measured effect on human gut bacteria:
1. Exercise increases microbial diversity and the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut.
New research suggests that moderate amounts of exercise—especially when combined with a diet high in protein—can increase the diversity of bacteria within the digestive tract, which can then strengthen and boost the immune system.
In one study, researchers peered into the gut environments of athletes (men with a normal BMI who engaged in light exercising) and non-athletes (overweight men with sedentary lifestyles) and found something interesting: a greater presence of a particular species of bacteria, Akkermansiaceae, which is linked to a reduced risk of ongoing inflammation (think tender joints and skin issues) and even a reduced risk for obesity.
That's one reason microbial diversity is so important. With so many critical roles that your gut flora play to keep you functioning at your best, the physical exercise of yoga can inspire a positive, healthy change within the gut microbiome.
2. Stress changes the behavior of gut microbes and the way they interact with the rest of the body.
The human stress response is a powerful thing. It can sink its negative teeth into just about every nook and cranny within your body, including your gut environment.
Interestingly enough, one of the key roles of healthy gut bacteria is to help signal the proper response to the brain to cope with the elevated "stressor" so that it doesn't affect the rest of the body in a negative way. However, the stress hormone, norepinephrine, can actually alter the very bacteria responsible for communicating with your brain along the vagus nerve. That means stress can literally make your microbes mess with your mental and emotional balance stemming from within the gut.
Additionally, large amounts of ongoing stress can negatively affect gut flora and lead to a sluggish metabolism, a depressed nervous system, and decreased nutrient absorption from your foods. If you consider that the gut is your body's main processing center with an astronomical number of immune cells, nerve cells, and hormonal or endocrine cells, it becomes clear that the impact of stress is much more sinister to our overall health than we might realize.
Because yoga utilizes stress-reduction techniques paired with physical exercise, we can start to see exactly how a consistent yoga practice makes you feel so darn good: It's because your gut health (and gut-brain connection) is supported by an abundance of good bacteria.
Yoga and the benefits of a healthy gut.
Here are some additional benefits of a healthy gut and how a consistent yoga practice can help support your foundation of health:
A happier outlook
With a combination of stress-soothing mantras, tension-releasing techniques, and microbe-diversifying movement, yoga can help improve the health of the gut-brain axis and pave the way for ideal mental and emotional function—meaning more joy and less propensity to get sucked into life's darkness due to stress.
A stronger immune system
Because the immune system counts on a healthy gut environment to thrive in a boosted yet balanced way, a consistent physical yoga practice can help ensure that you're supplied with natural, diverse gut flora, giving your body the tools to achieve a lasting feeling of health from within your core.
More energy and better endurance
A healthy gut environment supported by exercise can lift your natural energy levels by normalizing blood glucose and kick-starting your metabolism. Additionally, the healthy microbes in your gut environment assimilate the much-needed vitamins and minerals from your foods so that you have the energy you need to flow through your Vinyasas.
Stronger bones and joints
A healthy gut and a balanced immune system go hand-in-hand. So, when your beneficial gut bacteria are plentiful, your bones and joints receive a direct boost, which can ease wrist and joint pain by reducing inflammation within the body.
Supporting your gut health through yoga or mindful exercise can boost your natural energy levels, strengthen your immune system, promote the health of vulnerable joints, and improve your mental and emotional balance so you can bring even more of your wellness goals into alignment. You've got this!