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Practitioner Corner: Why Exercise is Key to Digestive Health

By Ritamarie Loscalzo

Woman doing fitness exercise, isolated

Woman doing fitness exercise, isolatedI spend a lot of time talking to clients about digestive health issues. We usually begin the conversation by discussing what they have been eating that is potentially an issue for them. Food sensitivities are often the culprit here, such as sensitivities with gluten, dairy, and sugar. Then we may start talking about why the “good stuff” that they are eating isn’t getting absorbed efficiently by their bodies. In the middle of this conversation two topics typically come up that often surprise clients. The surprising topics? How stress and exercise significantly impact their digestive health.

Your clients need to know why stress and exercise are important to their digestion. You need to be able to guide them as to what type of exercise is best, along with those that can be counter-intuitive to what is best. They need to also understand how the timing and intensity of their exercise impacts their digestion as well.

Healthy digestion – what it means to you

Efficient digestion is important to your overall health as it accomplishes 3 critical functions:

  • Absorbs all of the nutrients your body needs to survive and thrive
  • Removes toxic wastes
  • Keeps your gut and immunity healthy  – your gut being the home to your immune system

Many things impact a healthy digestion, including what you eat (obviously!) in the first place. The most efficient digestive system in the world can’t pull a lot of nutrients out of french fries and soda. You can learn more about how the digestive system works by viewing this video.

Along with what you eat, stress impacts your digestion.  We all know that we generally have too much of that going on in our lives.

How does stress negatively impact digestion? 

Your digestive system is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic branch is the one that responds to stress. It mobilizes the body for a direct reaction while inhibiting digestion. This allows the full resources of the body needed for “fight or flight” to be available to the brain, muscles, and heart.

You’ve likely heard the analogy of the caveman and the tiger many times. So if the caveman was being chased by the tiger and survived, stress likely saved him. The sympathetic nervous system took over and directed blood flow to the caveman’s limbs, pumping the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline through his body to focus him and give him optimal energy for “flight or fight”. The same hormones shut down other functions at that time, such as reproductive functions and digestive functions!

During this stressful time, the caveman’s parasympathetic nervous system shuts down. The parasympathetic system is the one responsible for maintenance, repair, restoration, and digestion.

The parasympathetic system is vital for life and health. Some of its functions are:

  • Causes saliva and digestive enzymes to be secreted to break down food
  • Causes the muscular contractions to push the food through the digestive system
  • Provides the mucus that covers the inner walls of the stomach and intestines. This provides protection from toxins and caustic digestive acids
  • Promotes the blood flow necessary to absorb nutrients
  • Maintains beneficial bacteria and immune cells

It was OK that this shut down while the tiger was on the prowl so the caveman didn’t become tiger food!

Short-term versus chronic stress

Short-term stress saved the caveman, but long-term stress would lead to digestive issues and chronic disease.  The effects of chronic stress on your digestion are:

  • Halts digestive juices from flowing
  • Shuts down the blood supply to the digestive tract, reducing digestion and absorption of nutrients
  • Damages the integrity of the gastrointestinal lining
  • Compromises the overall immune system

So here is the first place exercise comes to the digestive system’s rescue: reducing stress.

relax in poolExercise reduces stress and relaxes the mind and body

When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are your “feel good” hormones. That helps improve your mood and allows you to shed your daily tension. It also results in more energy, calmness, optimism, and improved sleep. All of these are good for your digestion. You put your parasympathetic nervous system back in control.

Exercise also improves the efficiency of your digestive system

Along with reducing stress, exercise improves the efficiency of all of the digestive organs in the body. Exercise benefits include:

  • Improves blood flow and metabolism: Facilitates better absorption of nutrients and more efficient distribution of nutrients throughout the body.
  • Strengthens muscles around the stomach and intestine: Digested food moves along more efficiently. Toxins are therefore moved through the system so your beneficial flora is not compromised.
  • Reduces constipation: Digestion time usually takes between 24 and 72 hours. Exercise can help improve the efficiency of the overall digestive process by stimulating the secretion of digestive juices, as well as stimulating intestinal movements (peristalsis) that the body uses to effectively eliminate wastes. Exercise decreases the transit time it takes food to move through the large intestine. This limits the amount of water absorbed from the stool back into the body. When stool takes longer to move through the body more water is absorbed leaving hard, dry stools that are more difficult to pass.
  • Improves the bacteria diversity: Your gut flora is constantly compromised by antibiotic use, diet, toxins, and other lifestyle and environmental impacts. Research has shown that exercise has a positive effect on the diversity of your gut’s “friendly” flora. One study in 2014 investigated the gut microbiota of athletes versus non-athletes, and found the athletes had higher proportions of most types of microorganisms over the control group.
  • Protective of the gastrointestinal tract: Toxins are moved through the system more quickly and remain in the colon a shorter time, so harmful bacteria are not allowed to multiply. The lining of the stomach and intestines retains its integrity creating a barrier against toxin absorption. Immunity in the digestive tract is kept intact.

WHEN should you exercise?

Athletic woman balancing in front of blue skyYou should always wait an hour (two hours is even better, especially if after having a large or heavy meal) before exercising.

After you eat, the blood flow increases to your stomach and intestines to help your body digest the meal. If you start exercising too quickly, the blood flow changes and redirects to your heart and muscles. Less blood flow to your digestive organs means fewer digestive enzymes, weaker intestinal contractions to push the food through your system, and sluggish movement of food waste through you intestines. This can result in excess gas, bloating, and constipation.


What type of exercise is best for your digestion?

In a scientific review done in 2009 (Centre for Physical Exercise and Nutrition Metabolism) on the impact of exercise on digestive health, mild-to-moderate intensity exercises were found to actually play a protective role against colon cancer, diverticular disease, cholelithiasis, and constipation. The review also found that one quarter to one half of elite athletes was hampered by gastrointestinal symptoms that altered motility, mechanical factors within the digestive system, or altered neuroimmunoendocrine secretions. The frequency of digestive issues was almost twice as high during running than any other endurance sport, such as cycling, swimming, etc.

If I am talking to a client who doesn’t typically exercise, I recommend they at least take a walk each day to start with. I then get them to work up to 30-60 minutes of “brisk” walking a day, maybe doing it in 10 minute intervals. This really helps, and doing it in intervals does not decrease the benefit. Not only will it help reduce stress but it will directly affect their risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as lowering blood pressure and a whole host of other negative health symptoms. Testing hundreds of my clients over the years has proven this out! Even better, work up to doing some burst training, which is more intense activity done in 30-60 second intervals, such as running in place. Just don’t do burst training until several hours after eating.

Quite honestly, any movement will help. If your work consists of sitting at a desk all day, you really need to take some mini-breaks throughout the day. Stand up, and at least do a little stretching if you can’t go for a short walk. I love it when clients agree to swap out their chair with a stand-up desk set-up. There are so many health benefits of doing so.

Relaxing and low-impact exercise, such as yoga and Pilates, can actually help improve digestion by reducing stress and anxiety levels, on top of providing the stretching and bending movement that helps keep your digestion moving along and may also help alleviate constipation. The gentle twisting movement of yoga poses has been shown to increase blood flow to the bowels and strengthen the intestinal muscles.  I recommend starting from a reclining position. This gives you a chance to take a deep breath and feel energized. Then progress from seated to standing positions. Some, like the bridge pose, are stretch moves that stimulate your abdominal organs. Next are twist poses that massage and tone your abdomen—great therapy for gas, bloating, and constipation. The remaining poses work out your back, neck, and spine. You will feel less stress when your nervous system is relaxed. The health benefits will spread to the rest of your body and ease your digestion.

You’ll want to do this simple stretch—also known as the wind-relieving pose—to gain relief from bloating and gas pains.  How to do it: Lie down, relax and inhale, placing your hands on your knees. Exhale, and hug your knees to your chest. Rock your knees from side to side to maximize the stretch. Stay for five to ten breaths, and release your knees. Repeat this move a few more times. Modification: Bring up your knees as far as it is comfortable. To vary the stretch, you can do one side at a time. Leaving your left leg extended, bring up your right knee and hold it for five or more breaths. Then, switch to the other side.

What type of exercise can negatively impact digestion?

More intense exercise such as running can cause a variety of digestive and gastrointestinal issues, which are commonly known health issues within runner communities. Acid reflux, heartburn, cramps, nausea or vomiting, and other recurring digestive complaints can occur. So if your client is a runner, be on the lookout for digestive issues.  Make sure they minimize any issues by delaying their exercise at least 2 hours after meals. They should also avoid taking NSAIDs or other medications that are associated with gastric irritation. It is important they drink a lot of fluids while exercising.  Look at things such as pre-exercise meal composition, their overall training approach, and other possible lifestyle modifications.

While this blog post is focused on exercise, don’t forget to incorporate other activities that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to stay in the driver’s seat. One good example is focusing on pre-meal de-stressing by taking a moment for appreciation.

Make sure you enlist the proper supplement protocols to help improve a client’s digestive issues, such as utilizing digestive enzymes, probiotics, natural fibers to restore normal intestinal mobility, and the use of herbs like slippery elm and ginger to protect and soothe the intestines.

Learn more about all of my protocols for digestive health!

If you are ready to learn even more about digestive health and nutritional endocrinology, consider applying for my “Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training.”  You’ll go on a deep dive and become knowledgeable about functional assessments, the basics of functional blood analysis, and more. You’ll learn to understand the macro- and micronutrients and how they interact with hormones and body functions, plus you’ll learn how to work with appetite, digestion, sleep, and blood sugar issues. You’ll be able to apply this new knowledge to clients, patients, loved ones, and yourself! Learn more and apply here.


COMMENTS? I’d love to hear your experience relating how exercise has helped or hindered your client’s digestive health! Please share!

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Medical Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, drritamarie.com, and the experts who have contributed. We encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.

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