Gut feelings and our sense of well-being.
We have all experienced the connection between emotions and our digestive system – we call them gut feelings – and we know that our emotions can affect how our intestines function. The same is also true the other way around – conditions in our intestines can influence our mental state, and even the development of mood disorders – and we’re now beginning to understand how this works.
I have first-hand experience of this. About 15 years ago, fed up with suffering from IBS, I decided to try cutting out some food groups, starting with dairy and wheat. I didn’t notice much at first but after about four weeks the pain and bloating subsided, and I felt a great deal better. Then I noticed that the mood swings I had always put down to hormonal changes had also completely gone. These mood swings could be quite extreme, and included feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, low-self-esteem, and poor self-image.
I tried re-introducing the foods, first dairy without any problems. But when I introduced wheat, I had the most profound reaction. The next day, I was almost suicidal and could hardly put one foot in front of the other – it was all I could do to get through that day. I held onto the thought that this had to be something outside of me, something external because nothing had changed from yesterday except that I had eaten wheat. This reaction persists even now, and even a tiny amount of wheat – ordinary soy sauce, or crispy-coated chips – will give me a dreadful ‘low’ about 24 hours later.
Our intestines are naturally porous. With conditions such as IBS there is a certain amount of inflammation and therefore swelling, hence the bloating and backache. Undigested food particles can pass more easily into the blood stream. The chemical balance of the fluid between the cells changes. All this affects the Vagus nerve, the messenger between our intestines and the brain. It’s the longest cranial nerve in the body and it has a role in the interplay between autonomic regulation (the unconscious functions of the body like heart rate and digestion) and the limbic centres which govern emotional expression and control.
We used to think of the Vagus nerve as simply the carrier of commands from the brain to glands and organs, but because it actually has more afferent neurons (taking messages from the body to the brain) rather than efferent neurons (taking messages from the brain to the body) it’s an important mediator of the connections between conditions in the abdomen and our emotional state.
This research is so important that it’s now being described as the third division of the autonomic nervous system and scientists are carefully studying the connection between our emotions and the role of the Vagus nerve. For example, a human has more serotonin receptors in the gut than in the brain. Understanding this relationship has many implications and explains why new medication guidelines for many chronic intestinal disorders recommend antidepressants over traditionally used drugs.
A recent study found that facial massage causes transmission along the Vagus nerve and into the limbic system, producing feelings of being soothed and cared for. In abdominal massage, it’s likely that stimulating the Vagus nerve help to shift the body into a parasympathetic state, giving us those feelings we experience after a good yoga class or a meditation session. So, the use of abdominal massage for mood disorders, relaxation and sleep promotion is an excellent reason (if you need one) to include abdominal massage in your treatments.
What does it do?
- The balm conditions the skin with no oily residue.
- Can be used all over the body.
- Practical and economical with no spillage or waste.
- Ready-blended with essential oils for different therapeutic effects, or unscented.
How to use:
- Scoop some balm from the tub into your hands. It will ‘melt’ on contact with skin and is then ready to apply to the area to be massaged. Add more as necessary.
Other ways of using it:
- Use a small amount on your skin before shaving.
- Use as a nourishing massage treatment for the head and hair.
Who is it for?
- These balms are suitable for all skin types.
Olive Massage Balm:
- Olive Fruit Oil – an unscented massage balm, it is extremely effective on dry, chapped skin, useful for eczema or psoriasis, and especially good for hands, elbows, knees and feet. Nourishing and softening, it provides excellent protection from weather and water. Coconut oil is naturally antibacterial and antifungal. Rice bran wax is a skin conditioning and protecting agent with high antioxidant properties.
Lavender and Clary Sage:
- Lavender – relaxing calming and soothing, anti-septic and anti-inflammatory. Known to relieve toothache, neuralgia, rheumatism among many other ailments. It has been used as an insect repellent and was used in hospitals during the first world war to disinfect floors and walls.
- Clary Sage – reduces skin inflammation and regulates the natural sebum production, making it suitable for all skin types. Has an uplifting effect and is known for its positive effects on mood swings, balancing female hormones and facilitating restful sleep. (NB: Clary Sage Essential Oil is not recommended during pregnancy.)
Black Pepper and Rosemary:
- Black Pepper – warming and stimulating, used to ease muscle and joint pain, often used in blends for sports massage. May be used for skin inflammations and superficial wounds and to treat stomach and digestive issues.
- Rosemary – healing, astringent, toning, tonic, refreshing, stimulating, deodorant, anti-septic, reactivating, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, softening, invigorating. (NB: Rosemary Essential Oil is not recommended during pregnancy . )
Spike Lavender, Ginger and Marjoram:
- Spike Lavender – stronger than lavender, it has a wide range of therapeutic properties. Deeply relaxing for the mind and body tissues, anti-septic and revitalising, can be helpful for a range of skin problems including abscesses, acne, athlete’s foot, boils, bruises, eczema, spots, sores, wounds, sunburn, insect bites and stings.
- Ginger – healing, tonic, anti-inflammatory, it is very soothing for aching joints and muscles. Helpful when combined with other oils in massage blends for after sport and relaxation.
- Marjoram – anti-spasmodic, calming and sedative, known for its soothing and relaxing benefits on the mind and on tired, aching muscles. Often added to sports massage blends.
KEY INGREDIENTS IN ALL BALMS:
Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil – an excellent carrier for other oils, it is extremely effective on dry, chapped skin. It is especially good for hands, elbows, knees and feet. Nourishing and softening, it provides excellent protection from weather and water. Quickly absorbed by the skin it also helps regulate sebum production.
Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil – a good emollient, easily absorbed it leaves the skin smooth and nourished. It is odourless and colourless and won’t stain linen or towels during massage. It is naturally antibacterial and antifungal and can penetrate hair better than other oils.
Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Wax – a skin conditioning and protecting agent with high antioxidant properties. Provides a protective, non-comedogenic barrier. It is not hydrogenated, is Ecocert, Cosmos approved and vegan friendly.
Tocopherol – natural Vitamin E, moisturising, easily absorbed, protects cell membranes from free radical damage.
At the July residential yoga weekend, I wanted a dessert that would be light, yet full of flavour and would round off a fairly substantial meal without leaving guests with that “heavy” feeling. This was a huge hit, and I’m delighted that this recipe will be featured in the December issue of Bee Green Magazine, but just for subscribers. In the meantime, here’s a sneaky peek:
This is such an easy recipe to make. It would be a lovely way to end a meal with friends and it doubles (or triples!) up easily too. The orchard on the farm is full of pears, plums and apples right now, and I can’t wait to make the most of the season’s bounty at our next Yoga weekend in October. There are still places left, so if a weekend of yoga and delicious food in the depths of the Dorset countryside sound good, do get in touch.
Ingredients (serves 4)
4 firm ripe pears (Conference pears work well)
500ml bottle cider (medium/dry)
50g demerara OR golden granulated/caster sugar OR Honey/Maple Syrup/Agave
1 cinnamon stick or 1tsp ground cinnamon
6 cardamom pods (swap for cloves, all spice or ground nutmeg for a more “festive” vibe)
1-2 tsp pink peppercorns
60g toasted, flaked almonds
Extra thick cream, greek yogurt or coconut yogurt, to serve.
Peel the pears, leaving the stalks on and set aside. Place the cider, sugar and spices into a large saucepan with a lid, give it a good stir, then place the pears in and put the lid on. Simmer over a medium heat for around 20-30 minutes, or until a round bladed knife passes easily through the thickest part of the pear. Carefully, remove the pears from the poaching liquid using a slotted spoon, set aside and keep warm. Turn the heat up under the poaching liquid, and with the lid off, reduce until thickened and syrupy. Remove the cardamom pods and the cinnamon stick but keep the peppercorns in. Put the pears into individual serving dishes, spoon over the syrup and sprinkle with toasted almonds then serve with a dollop of cream or your favourite yogurt or dairy-free alternative on the side.
Physically, there are many symptoms of liver imbalance from the obvious to the very subtle, such as feeling a lump in the throat, or problems with tendons or eyes. One of the first signs is related to your emotions, specifically your temper: are you suffering from anger, stubbornness, aggression or irritation? When you’re thinking about a detox for your liver, you need to consider your general constitution. Some people are still physically strong, despite needing a liver detox, while some show signs of physical weakness. Another effect can show in your digestion – are you constipated, or the opposite? Do you suffer from colitis or IBS?
With an appropriate diet and a sensitive yoga routine you can have a massive effect on your physical and emotional state, especially after a period of excess like Christmas and New Year! So make a note of your emotional and physical states, however unconnected they might seem, before you start and check how you feel as they days progress.
Some general rules for your Diet:
- Eat primarily vegetarian food, including raw foods and sprouted grains, seeds and beans every day.
- Take the biggest meal of the day at lunchtime, eat early and sparingly in the evening. Avoid late meals to allow the liver and gall bladder time to prepare for their regeneration cycle during the night.
- For signs of weakness: drink organic apple cider vinegar and honey with warm water – useful for liver imbalance resulting in depression & irritability.
- For signs of heat/strength: choose bitter foods such as lemon, lime, grapefruit, rye, asparagus, Milk Thistle Tincture – all these help when anger, aggression, shouting, or splitting headaches are the symptoms.
- Once you have spent a few days on this regime, add in some foods for liver regeneration. The chlorophyll-rich foods such as wheat/barley grass, and the micro-algae spirulina or chlorella – all these are useful taken regularly to support balanced liver function. (New post about micro-algae coming soon.)
Yoga for the Liver:
How to access the liver? First and foremost, use your arms. Couple this with standing forward bends, abdominal work and some gentle twists and you’ll have a routine of benefit to the liver.
1. Half Uttanasana (wide feet) with hands on a ledge/windowsill.
2. Uttanasana – feet hip width, hands to the floor or legs, keep the legs strong and release the spine down.
3. Padangusthasana – really pull on your toes to look up, then bend the elbows wide to draw yourself towards your legs. (Have a read of this first: https://iyengarhomepractice.wordpress.com/tag/padangusthasana/
4. Adho Mukha Svanasana into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, first using a chair and then from the floor if you are able.
5. Finish this section with Adho Mukha Virasana. (As you are in this pose, do you notice the feeling of ‘freshness’ coming through?)
6 & 7. Tadasana and Urdhva Hastasana X 2, then maintaining Tadasana: Extend your arms behind – lift your chest and open those armpits! X 2
8. Ghomukhasana X2
9. Navasana – use support if needed, and LIFT your sacrum and chest.
11. Jatthara Parivatanasana – bent legs, draw knees close to opposite elbow.
12. Passive backbend – get the support right under your shoulderblades, not your waist, so your arms must be high. Breathe into the rib cage/diaphragm area, especially areas where you feel tightness. Let the breath open and extend those areas.
13. Supta Baddakonasana.
After a few days, if you’re feeling better and suddenly find you have bundles of energy, Surya Namaskar is the best way to start your day. You can slow it down and step rather than jump if you prefer. http://bobbyclennell.com/MYoga.html (Please observe the restrictions at the bottom of the page.)
Pre-solutions? Things you do before Christmas to make your New Year resolutions easier to keep.
GET A GRIP – Everywhere you turn, piles of pointless calories: tubs of sweets, mini
chocolate bars, bowls of crisps and peanuts, mince pies, and (my favourite) cheese footballs. You’re going to need a steely resolve to avoid these so rather than feeling sorry for yourself, recognise that the instant gratification you get for saying, ‘No thanks’, is worth ten times the long-term misery of succumbing.
TONE UP YOUR LIVER – Use your exercise routine to stimulate liver circulation by adding some deep stretches and working your arms more. We tend to think that twists will help, and they do, but using the strength of your arms, and stretching them over your head allows access to the liver. (Look out for the New Year Yoga Routine coming soon!) Foods to eat include sprouted grains/seeds/legumes, micro-algae, spices and herbs – cumin and turmeric – and lightly cooked brassicas like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and (guess what?) brussel sprouts! Avoid sugar, and carbs generally – you really only need 130g per day, a few small potatoes and the odd slice of bread, but more about that in the New Year blog.
3:2:2 – Alcohol, and managing your intake needs careful planning. Divide your weekdaysinto blocks of days 3:2:2. Look at your diary and map out the points during the festive season when drink will be the theme. Then, depending on your natural habits, order your blocks of days into non-alcohol, low-alcohol and party time. This is a much better system than all or nothing. You can use one of the goal setting apps to keep track – I like HabitHub.
PLAN AHEAD – Forewarned is forearmed: if you’re going to make a success of this, and above all enjoy yourself, you need to plan ahead so you can have the kind of Christmas season you won’t regret afterwards. Take each day as it comes and think through how you’ll avoid the trip wires: exercise first thing, don’t skip proper meals, carry healthy snacks with you, and if you’re eating out, make sure there’s water on your table, not just wine!
HAPPY NEW YEAR! We’re all human and we won’t get it right every day of the holiday season. So put yesterday behind you and concentrate on getting today right and you will be moving in the right direction. Give your body and mind a merry Christmas and a happy New Year too!