Exercise for Mental and Digestive Health
We all know that exercise is super important for our overall health and wellness. Research is showing this to be true for our digestive and mental health too.
I’ll testify: every part of me feels soooo much better when I take the time and energy to move my body, to stretch, to connect inward, to take care of my perfect human body and to show ME just how much I’m ready to show up FOR ME, on my own terms, in my own way.
I healed my IBS, cleared my parasite and bacterial infections, and I’m not letting those lousy symptoms rule my life again.
Same goes for depression and anxiety. That sucked and I’m not going back.
Daily exercise keeps me feeling my best – mentally and physically.
Exercise keeps me calm, centered and mindful – it helps me to be my own watcher, to know what I’m thinking and feeling as I get more in touch with my own body and mind.
And when I don’t exercise? I can feel my digestion slow. I feel pent up, cagey, more prone to letting my emotions rule the show – center stage – versus standing strong in my ability to manage my own mind, and to choose the thoughts that lead me to feel my best.
Your digestion and your mood are deeply linked – what affects one, affects the other. There is a bidirectional superhighway from your gut to your brain and back. Our vagus nerve is the magical connector between the two.
Exercise stimulates your vagus and thus supports your gut and brain health is fabulous ways. And it’s shown that even simple exercise changes can help, so don’t think you need to be training for the next marathon to get the benefits! Read on to learn more about how vital exercise is for wellness, with a focus on my trademark obsessions: gut and mental health.
If you aren’t moving your bowels on the daily, you’re not excreting the toxins your body works so hard to clear. Regular, daily BMs play a role in balancing hormones and reducing the risk of bacterial, fungal or parasite overgrowths. Daily BMs help to reduce your risk of diverticulitis and even colon cancer. And not going to the bathroom feels friggin’ terrible. Enter the magic of Exercise!
Exercise increases motility through the small intestine while also signalling the peristaltic wave in the large intestine. Daily movement, even just walking briskly for 20-30 minutes, helps send signals to your digestive system to take out the trash. This reduces your risk of constipation, as stool that moves more quickly through your colon is less likely to get hard or dry. Aerobic exercise stimulates the vagus nerve, as you speed up your heart and breathing rates. This vagus activation helps prime the muscles in the intestines to move stool out more quickly, with less straining.
Exercise and Leaky Gut: the Kind of Bacteria in You Matters
Research shows that having a good range of commensal, or friendly, bacteria can influence so many good things in our life. From having balanced mental health to a robust immune system, and of course having glorious daily bowel movements, the health of your microbiome is key for full body health!
Eating fermented foods like yoghurt, beet kvass, kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut can help to support the healthy bacteria and microbes in our gut microbiome. Research shows that having a diversity of gut bacteria can influence so many parts of our health. Our immune systems, mental wellness, pain response and of course our bowel movements are dependant on having robust bacterial communities.
Turns out that having the right KINDS of bacteria in your gut is key.
The two predominant phyla of bacteria in the gut are firmicutes and bacteroidetes. Firmicutes are important for prevention of Leaky Gut Syndrome. They help to prevent bacteria from leaking out of your gut.
Leaky gut can occur when undigested food and allergens slip through your GI tract and enter your bloodstream. This can cause inflammation systemically. Inflammation is a major player in digestive upset, from IBS and SIBO to IBD. Inflammation can also worsen mental health, including depression and anxiety. Having a healthy balance of firmicutes bacteria is important for guarding your GI tract from this inflammation. Good gut bugs for the win!
A 2018 study showed that participants who exercised regularly increased their ratio of firmicutes-to-bacteroids in their gut. After just 6 weeks of consistent exercise, the changes were impressive. By exercising daily, they helped their microbiome community to increase and rebalance the population of helpful bacteria cells in the gut!
This same study showed that when the participants went back to their previously sedentary lifestyle, their gut bacteria returned to the state they were in before. This goes to show that daily movement and consistency are so important for longterm, sustainable gut health.
Exercise and Your Mental Health
When you exercise, your brain releases neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals. Amongst these are endorphins and serotonin. These are regularly referred to as your “happiness hormones.” Endorphins are neurotransmitters that help to relieve pain and stress. Serotonin boosts your mood and can improve your overall sense of well-being. 70-95% of your serotonin comes from your gut! (like how it comes full circle to gut health?)
Serotonin is a vital chemical that signals your gut to empty. When the gut gets this emptying signal, more serotonin is released, feeding more serotonin back into your body. This is called the peristaltic wave in the large intestine. It is called the migrating motor complex in the small intestine. We need both systems moving appropriately to have regular, daily, easy bowel movements. As above, daily emptying of the bowels helps move toxins and pathogenic (harmful) cells out of the body. Daily exercise helps keep these chemical systems ticking along magnificently.
Other neurotransmitters that are released during exercise are dopamine and norepinephrine. These help your brain to regulate mood and stress, which is pretty great. Daily exercise helps trigger the chemicals that make us happy, and help us have healthy bowels. A win-win-win situation for our digestive and mental health!
Cortisol and Your Mental Health
When you are under a lot of pressure or stress, your body can respond by reacting with a “fight/flight/freeze” response. This response is your body’s preparation to run,to stay and fight or to collapse and look dead, all so that you don’t get eaten by a predator. It goes back to our ancestors, way back in the day,who faced life or death danger in their environment every day. Nowadays, we can experience this same dramatic reaction even to non-life threatening things happening around us.
When you experience this fight/flight/freeze response, you get an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Cortisol and adrenaline are released. These two chemicals can affect your digestive system. Blood is taken away from your intestines and is shunted to your limbs so you can run away or fight. If you are living in a state of high adrenaline and cortisol, it can negatively impact your gut health. Cortisol also thins mucous membranes, worsening leaky gut.
When you exercise regularly, the endorphins and serotonin released can help to balance your adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise or physical activity can help to reduce these chemicals in your system. Over time, with regular movement, you can help your body cope better with stress.
So how much exercise do I need? And what type of exercise?
If you don’t exercise regularly, the thought of starting can be overwhelming. But it’s ok, you don’t need to start with large amounts of exercise. Improvements to your gut and mental health can start with the smallest daily movement.. 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week, is all you need to have experience these benefits of improved gut and mental health.
These 30 minutes a day can be broken down into smaller chunks, like 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Simple changes can get you your 30 minutes a day. Small changes like going to the restroom on a different floor at work.Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.Parking your car farther from the entrance to the mall. Getting off the subway a stop early and walking. All these small acts of self care can help get you to your 30 minute a day.
If you are keen to try a new exercise, then go for it! Whether it’s a new gym class or a new sport, make sure you find something that you enjoy doing. You might not enjoy it every day, but you need to want to do it to ensure you can stick to it consistently to get the best results for your health.
But Exercise Hurts for Days or Completely Wipes Me Out…
For some folks with conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or other systemic inflammatory conditions, exercise can set healing wayyyy back. If this is you, please: listen to your perfect human body. Get it touch with your intuition, to that gut feeling that tells you when enough is enough.
Trust that feeling.
Learn your limits.
Honor your limits.
If you’re able to walk one block today and that’s it, then that’s great! If you want to try walking two blocks tomorrow – great! If your body says: that’s enough! please listen. Again: no one knows what is right for you, other than you. Honor your abilities, and your needs. Rest. Allow your body the time and space you need to heal.
And ask yourself if you’re not exercising or moving from a place of fear – of pain, of failure, of disappointing yourself or others… because those are thoughts I KNOW you can work through. Take an honest look at why you’re taking the actions you’re taking… or not taking. Ask yourself these questions, from a place of love. The answers can help guide you around what’s truly best for your perfect amazing human body.
Stuck rolling around in an “I hate the gym” story? Then don’t go to there! Find a dance class! Ride a bike! Walk! Stretch! It soooo doesn’t matter. Just choose not to indulge in that false emotion around exercise. Choose something you can hate just a littttle bit less than the gym, and get to it. There is no Perfect Exercise, there is just the one you got done. And that exercise helps you digest better, helps heal leaky gut, helps balance your microbiome and helps fight back depression and anxiety.
Also try going with a friend and as this can make it more fun. Accountability can help you stick with it on those days you don’t feel like going.
As always, I’ll remind you that you don’t need to FEEL motivation to just do something that is good for you. I often don’t feel like exercising, but I do it anyway. I plan my life and my days ahead of time. I make a schedule, and I stick to it. I don’t wait for the Mystical Magic of Motivation to get me to the gym. I might not ever make it if I did! I get up, put the ole spandex on, and get going. Learning and relearning, on the daily, to trust myself to do the things I said I would has been lifechanging. Don’t short-change yourself by delaying your health and your joy – put it on your calendar and get going.
You deserve to feel as amazing as humanly possible. Exercise is a free and easy way to up your health and healing game.
No one knows the right exercise or movement for you other than you.
There is no Right way to get your body into motion – walking, yoga, dancing, hula hooping, swimming, cross fit, whatever it is that makes you feel alive and powerful and strong in your human body — go do it.
Do it daily.
Commit to it and make it a non-negotiable.
Especially if you’ve battled depression or mental health issues – the studies show exercise keeps folks in remission longer.
Especially if you’ve battled leaky gut, IBS, IBD, SIBO – studies show exercise keeps your digestion working optimally.
Make the commitment to yourself, however small you may need to smart, and get your body moving daily. You deserve the best of health, my perfect love, and it’s yours for the creating.
What small step will you take TODAY to get moving to improve your gut and mental health, and to build your faith in yourself to take amazing care of your one perfect body?
PETERS HPF, DE VRIES WR, VANBERGE-HENEGOUWEN GP, et al. Potential benefits and hazards of physical activity and exercise on the gastrointestinal tract. Gut 2001; 48:435-439
Ströhle, A. J Neural Transm. Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. (2009)
Victoria Albina, NP, MPH is a licensed and board certified Family Nurse Practitioner, herbalist and life coach, with 20 years experience in health and wellness. She trained at the University of California, San Francisco, and holds a Masters in Public Health from Boston University and a bachelors from Oberlin College. She comes to this work having been a patient herself, and having healed from a lifetime of IBS, GERD, SIBO, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
She is passionate about her work, and loves supporting patients in a truly holistic way - body, mind, heart and spirit. A native of Mar del Plata, Argentina, she grew up in the great state of Rhode Island, and lives in NYC with her partner. A brown dog named Frankie Bacon has her heart, and she lives for steak and a good dark chocolate.