“If you know the art of deep breathing, you have the strength, wisdom and courage of ten tigers.” ~Chinese adage
Let me share a little secret: I started healing from decades of debilitating chronic digestive issues when I stopped looking for the next best solution and trying to heal. Instead, I did nothing. And I took a breath.
Let’s start at the beginning. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (an irritable bowel disease) at the age of eighteen, which would have marked the beginning of my oh-so-anticipated adult life, but instead, I thought my life was over.
I had every symptom you can imagine—constant bloating, diarrhea, non-stop pain that would keep me bed-ridden for days. There were nights when I would fall asleep hugging my toilet. I could not keep food down and lost twenty-two pounds.
My dream of going out and having fun with friends, stuffing our bellies with fondue and wine (typical French dish—I was living in Paris at that time) and so many more experiences I was anticipating, were slipping away from me. Instead, a painful, horrible reality was settling in fast.
After being given medication for life and the advice to “manage my stress” by doctors, suffering from side effects from the treatment with no signs of getting better, I became my own wellness warrior.
For a decade I went on a crusade for the “right” answer. I experimented with so many diets—the elimination diet, the low FODMAP diet; I quit carbs, then reintroduced them but took out gluten and dairy, while sitting in the lotus position as much as possible to reduce my stress and manage my anxiety. Sound familiar?
Yet I had no real, sustainable improvements. My flares kept coming back. I realized healing had become my identity. I was desperately trying, looking for the next best wellness promise that would alleviate my symptoms.
It was exhausting, but I desperately wanted to feel better.
To not be afraid that any food, as healthy as it may be, would trigger a parade of symptoms. To not have to go to a meeting thirty minutes early to ensure I got the seat closest to the bathroom. To not be defined by my bowel disease and to live my life to the fullest.
The day I had my first “pooping accident” in the middle of dinner with friends I realized something had to change.
My quest for the best solution to heal my gut was so desperate, obsessive, and life-consuming that I almost stopped breathing. And when I took the time to take a step back and do nothing, it dawned on me: I had been so disconnected from my body that I literally did not remember how to breathe.
I don’t know if my anxiety affected my breathing pattern, which exacerbated my gut disease, or whether my gut disease caused my stress and anxiety, which changed my breathing pattern.
Either way, a digestive issue, in any form, has as its main root cause what is going on in our head: our self-talk, our stress triggers, more than the foods we eat.
The connection between our gut and our mind is strong and undeniable. Our digestive tract has its own nervous system and it sends constant information to our brain, our central nervous system.
We’ve all said to ourselves or to others “trust your gut,” “go with your gut,” “I have a bad / good gut feeling.” It is literally the nervous system in your digestive tract sending signals to your brain that something is wrong or right!
Similarly, we’ve all heard about foods that help balance our gut microbiome (the trillions of organisms that live in our gut)—fermented foods, probiotics, clean fiber-rich foods to feed our good bacteria. But how often do we hear about our true gut feelings—fear, anxiety, sadness, dread—that can actually kill all the bacteria in our gut we tried so hard to feed through nutrition? And how do we diminish them?
If we focus on just nutrition to lower the symptoms of the gut, it is only one part of the picture. We have to look at our whole body and ourselves as a whole person. So by also focusing on diminishing stress, anxiety, and depression we can reverse the issues in our digestive system.
Beginning to Breathe the Right Way
Eventually, after seven years, I became tired from outsourcing my healing powers to “experts,” and I realized that the solution was not in another medication or diet but rather in my own hands. I took some time to listen to my body and to my breath. I had to re-learn how to breathe right to be re-connected to my body (and my gut).
I noticed that what goes on in my brain is felt by my gut. When I felt stressed, my gut felt it too. Friends and family advised me to chill out or relax, but if you are dealing with a life situation that is super stressful, it’s hard to know where to start.
So I took the first step and put one hand on my belly, the other resting on my diaphragm, and gave them love. I told myself, “I am safe, and I trust my body will guide me toward the path to wellness.” I focused on my breath as my belly rose and my diaphragm followed, and as I exhaled, I let go of every thought that was holding me back from my true healing.
At first, I was overwhelmed with emotions of sadness and self-blame. How could I have let myself become so disconnected from my own body, my own breath? But as I stayed with these feelings and focused on my breath, I reconnected with my body in an unprecedented way. I felt strong, vibrant, and grounded in a way that I had never experienced before. I developed faith that that my body is a beautiful tool that knows what it needs to heal.
If given half a chance, the body will heal itself by itself. We just need to stop and let it.
I moved from being obsessed with healing to a space of not trying to heal, of doing nothing, and that is where my healing started. That state of “nothing” allows the little voice in your gut to come out—first quiet, injured, and confused and then a little clearer and more resilient each day.
That is the voice that you need to acknowledge. Get familiar with it. Learn to trust it. Because this is where your healing and the life of your dreams begin.
How to Optimize the Power of Your Breath to Benefit Your Gut
1. Recognize stress.
Stress manifests in various ways. You might experience it when you cook and your children are wrapped around your ankle, or when you have to spend time with someone you don’t want to see.
Whatever causes you stress, you will be able to tackle it when you learn to recognize the first signals of stress in your body: a racing heart, irritable bowel, sweating, redness in your face, muscle tension, or jaw clenching.
Take some time during the day to check in with how you are feeling.
Go to a quiet place even for two minutes. Put your feet on the ground and feel the sensation of groundedness. Imagine you are at the roots of a big, majestic tree. Do you feel tingling in your hands, a burden on your chest, a pounding in your head?
Do you experience feelings of anger? Fear? Joy? Anxiety? Happiness?
Stay with these feelings. Tell yourself that you are safe. Breathe through those feelings and sensations.
When we slow down and breathe mindfully we are allowing the mind to unpack the stress that can stimulate gut irritation.
2. Get out of your head and into your body.
I used to feel anxious and fearful about being in debilitating pain for the rest of my life. I wanted to stop feeling this way so bad. We all want to get rid of uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible, but this can actually create more anxiety. Stress and anxiety disconnect you from your body, and you get cut off from emotion and intuition.
It’s natural to feel fearful or anxious when something stressful happens, or we’re thinking about what’s going to happen in the future. But if we focus on what could go wrong, we catastrophize and our internal monologue can derail us.
It’s important that you don’t criticize yourself for these feelings. Instead, love yourself through it by saying, “This is a normal response to my circumstances, which are stressful or difficult. It’s okay to feel this way.”
Then do something to get out of your head and into your body. Do some light stretches, take a walk, dance to your favorite song. Anything that gets you physically moving will help you stop obsessing and dwelling.
3. Calm anxiety by accepting it.
When we let anxiety run its course without fighting it, it reduces. Fighting the feeling of anxiety is what can trigger a panic attack.
You may have heard of the phrase “what you resist persists,” and you may have experienced it.
Recognize and understand your anxiety: Tell yourself, “I feel anxious and nervous because I’m worried about …”
Then, just breathe: Inhale and exhale slowly for several deep breaths.
As you continue with this practice, you will get in tune with your body and learn to trust it.
4. Learn to breathe the right way.
How are you breathing? Through your mouth or your nose? Maybe you haven’t ever noticed how you breathe. That was me for so long until I started paying attention.
We should be breathing through our nose. Breathing through our mouth tends to stimulate upper chest breathing, which is more shallow. It places our body in a state of stress, which increases inflammation. When we breathe through our nose, we breathe calming breaths through our diaphragm.
Studies have shown that when we breathe through our diaphragm we are massaging our internal organs, including our intestine, reducing inflammation.
Breathing through the nose allows us to breathe more efficiently and stay in a state where the body can heal itself.
How Should We Start Breathing Correctly?
Become aware of how you are breathing throughout the day. When you catch yourself breathing through your mouth, switch and breathe through your nose. If you feel stressed or anxious, that is an indication that you are breathing through your mouth.
Try breathing through your nose as much of the time as possible. The more you practice it, the more you’ll train yourself to calm down quickly.
Next time your physical symptoms arise, instead of looking for the next best solution and trying to heal, creating stress and anxiety, take a breath and ask your body: What do you need to heal?
Then listen to the signs it gives you, as it is the perfect medicine for you.