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Digestive System, nutrition and metabolism


Healing the Total Body: Where Western Anatomy Meets Eastern Spiritual Science

Healing Series, part 9 

Table of Contents:

Digestion connected to emotions

Digestive System

Involuntary muscles controlled by Nervous System

Chakras of sensuality and self-esteem

TCM and Nutrition

Urinary System

(back to the Healing Series)


Digestion connected to emotions

My Digestive System seems to be related to my emotions and my yogic energy. It doesn’t make intuitive sense that it would be connected, but I have proof. It’s an interesting subject that isn’t talked about so openly. If working optimally, my emotional and physical self are definitely more balanced.

In fact, a five day green juice cleanse (very intestinal) forces me to go through the largest range of emotions as they are felt and released. When it's over, I am left with the most clarity in the mind.

When I am most stressed, it's most helpful to breathe into the lower belly for calming. I do this in yoga but also in life. Interestingly, it's all related to the same physical area of the body.

Here is why...

Vagus nerve connects digestive to nervous systems

There is a lot more going on in your belly than abdominal muscles. Our guts (literally) are in the area that has been medically proven to be a second brain, the Enteric Nervous System. Including neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, your gut is able to learn, remember and produce emotion-based feelings. The two nervous systems are connected through the vagus nerve.

I use my belly's intelligence in yoga, sealing in the energy by activating the internal muscular and energetic locks: Mula bandha, Uddiyana bandha.


Digestive System

The Digestive System organs break down large food molecules into smaller ones where they are absorbed along with minerals and water into the body. Gastrointestinal tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine) and accessory organs (salivary glands, liver, pancreas) all work together.

Gastrointestinal tract

The mouth receives food and mechanically digests it (using the tongue and teeth), mixing it with saliva, which lubricate it and begin digestion. The pharynx is the passageway to the Respiratory System—food and breath both using the same path—and it leads to the esophagus, delivering food to the stomach.

The stomach secretes acids, digestive enzymes and gastric juices such as pepsin and hydrochloric acid to break down proteins, to send to the small intestine for the majority of the digestive process. The pancreas contributes enzymes and attempts to balance the pH by neutralizing acidity. The liver contributes bile (stored in the gall bladder), and also controls carbohydrate metabolism, converting some amino acids into energy. The liver also breaks down fatty acids to be processed in metabolism. In addition, the liver removes drugs and hormones from the blood, excreting them into the bile.

The large intestine is also referred to as the colon. The cecum connects the small to large intestine, where nondigested materials first travel up the ascending colon (right side of abdomen), across through the traverse colon (horizontally, across the top of the abdomen) where it then becomes the descending colon (left side of abdomen). At the bottom of its path, it becomes the sigmoid colon (S-shaped structure that descends downward toward the rectum). The functions of the large intestine are to reabsorb water, ions, vitamins and compact the waste material.


Involuntary muscle controlled by Nervous System

Some gastrointestinal issues effect the esophagus, causing difficulty swallowing. There is some relation to the Nervous System. The esophagus has an involuntary muscle, while the muscle in the mouth is voluntary.

Swallowing is involuntary

The involuntary phase of swallowing is controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System, induction of muscular contractions called peristalsis in the esophagus. Panic and anxiety can cause fear as the life force is in jeopardy.

Digestion is an important system, only recognized when it's not working so well. A gluten-free diet helps as does keeping the Parasympathetic Nervous System in its optimal state. Yoga is a best friend for this one, in particular its Nervous System cleansing effect.


Chakras of sensuality and self-esteem

The Digestive System organs are in the second and third chakras. The second chakra (Sacral Chakra), the center for creativity and sensuality, explains part of why emotions can be affected by digestion. The third chakra (Solar Plexus Chakra), the center of self-esteem, explains why self-confidence can be affected by negative digestion—anger and manipulative emotions arise when this system is not in balance.

Anger, manipulative behaviors arise with digestive imbalance

Muscle malfunction centered around the third chakra and Digestive System points to hypoglycemia and other digestive disorders. My third chakra of self-esteem needs to perform. I exhibited this more fiercely when I began Mysore yoga as I was guided by my ego to overcome insecurities in this chakra, as it's about transformation and using the internal fire, just as the Digestive System.

Located in the solar plexus, it’s the source of the "butterfly feelings" when I’m feeling nervous, heightening sensitivities, which routes back to the Autonomic Nervous System, sympathetic in particular.

When we are grounded, this stimulation can be empowering and vitalizing. Without grounding, we may get a flurry of undirected energy.” (Source: Wheels of Life, Chakra 3 chapter)

Personal power comes from your gut

The third chakra and its connection to personal power intrigue me. Developing power within is also dependent upon the upper chakras—5th communication, 6th intuition, 7th spirit connection—but it should not be at the expense of the lower chakras—1st survival, 2nd creativity, 3rd self-esteem. My power comes from within my guts, visions, creativity and intelligence.

I access the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage.” ~Friedrich Neitzche

I must first overcome inertia (meditation-in-motion yoga)—and I feel this empowerment once I’m in the middle of my yoga practice, having gone through the physically challenging part. There I am able to give up feeling like a victim to anything at all, moving past sensitivity toward criticism. This becomes healing and grounding. It’s also a good way to release blocked anger through love and laughter.

Toward the first couple months into my Mysore practice in the Ashtanga Primary Series—going every day—I developed pain in my sacrum. This was an eye-opener to the fact that my 18 years of yoga beforehand were not a good warmup for daily Mysore. It identified a bad physical pattern I had with my yoga, which was illuminated by doing the same thing every day. The explanation: I was not doing the internal rotation on many of my yoga poses correctly. A digestive issue developed soon after. This sacral pain was connected to my lower chakras. My fear, creativity and self-esteem were in havoc…

Surrender to yourself

To get over this, I had to surrender to myself. I remembered that sometimes when I give something in my life too much attention, it gets worse. I told myself that my practice needs to be about my subtle body now, not physical. That is how I healed myself, together with the internal rotation correction, on repeat. My sacrum pain went away and my digestion was cured too (still practicing yoga every day)—it took approximately 2 months.



TCM and Nutrition

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) helps to explain digestion as Qi burns in the Digestive System in the Middle Burner together with the Lymphatic System.

Transforming Qi as it moves

It’s about transformation of the Qi, which if happening properly allows movement, growth and health. When Qi moves in the right direction, it’s the basis for the movement of blood, transformation of essence, movement of bodily fluids, digestion of food, absorption of nourishment, excretion of waste, moistening of sinews and bones, moistening of skin and resistance to exterior pathogenic factors. (Source: The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists, Maciocia)

Yin-Yang philosophy: Food (yin) is transmuted by metabolic activity (yang) into more substance (tissue) and more energy (heat and metabolic activity).

Nutrition has become an important component for me in relation to digestion in particular. Each day I have the following digestive-enhancing routine:

  • kombucha
  • liquid calcium, containing magnesium
  • Healthy Vata Ayurvedic potion (for calming and digesting)
  • Primal Defense probiotics (for health gut flora)
  • tumeric/ginger tea (antinflammatory, antioxidant and digesting)
  • filtered water
  • vitamin D3 (the liver participates in the activation of vitamin D for use in the body)
  • Cat's Claw (used by indiginous people in South Amerca for digestion, inflammation and wound-healing)

Urinary System

The Urinary System, while seemingly related to the Digestive System, isn’t the same thing. Its primary function is to regulate the composition and concentration of the plasma and tissue fluids surrounding the body cells, and to form urine from the blood plasma in the kidneys.

Regulate volume of blood plasma

The kidneys regulate the volume of blood plasma, contributing to blood pressure. They control the concentration of waste products in the blood. They regulate the concentration of electrolytes and contribute to the pH level of the plasma.

The nephron is the functional unit of the kidney, consisting of small vessels carrying blood, which goes through filtration as the blood reabsorbs many materials of value to the body; it secretes substances to be removed from the body, which ends up in urine. Reabsorption of salts and water occurs separately.

Approximately 95% of urine is water, and 5% is solid organic waste (one being urea—toxic to the body), ions and salts. Urea is a product of liver metabolism, created during the conversion of amino acids to energy-supplying compounds.