It’s not just what we eat but how we sit when we eat that can cause digestive issues. Nutritional Therapist and self-confessed gut nut, Eve Kalinik checks in for posture MOT
“Sit up straight!” We might remember our parents and teachers repeatedly telling us this when we were children. While a straight spine at the table was more about good manners, it may also have been doing our gut a favour. Hear me out with this…
Mealtimes used to be a time when family came together at the table, however these days, we’re far more likely to eat hunched on a sofa or over a desk while checking emails, watching TV or chatting on WhatsApp, giving little thought to the process of eating and digesting.
Our general sitting behavior – whether that’s sitting to eat or to work – is often practised without thought, care or attention. Poor posture has a physical effect on our back and spine as we know, but it may also have an impact on optimum functioning of the gut. Perhaps that persistent post-lunch discomfort and bloating aren't so much to do with what you are eating, but the WAY in which you are sitting when you’re eating it.
While children are able to sit up straight effortlessly, most of us have lost the flexibility and strength to do so, which has implications for our digestive system. We may know we need to sit up, but as postural imbalances creep in, it can feel – well simply not very comfortable. Much easier to slouch.
When we hunch, there's less space for the gut to do its job properly
There are myriad articles, gut cookbooks and foods all geared towards gut health, but there is surprisingly little in the way of literature on the link between posture and the gut. As a gym goer with an interest in fitness (back in the day I completed my PT Level 3 instructor qualification) and Nutritional Therapist, I have witnessed many injuries related to posture that can often be driven from another point in the body. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that if there are weaknesses in the spine caused by poor and prolonged sitting, the gut may also suffer the brunt of that imbalance too.
Common sense dictates that if we are hunching forwards, we impede the process of digestion – there’s less ‘space’ for the gut to do its job properly. What’s more, specific posture weaknesses could lead to more direct symptoms. For instance, if you tend to hunch from the upper back then perhaps you could be more likely to suffer from reflux. Overarching or slumping from the lower back, on the other hand, could lead to bloating and gassy after-effects from a meal.
Either way, you can end up at the same place of a more sluggish and/or compromised digestion.
How slouching can cause bloating, reflux and a 'backed up' system
Slouching impairs how well our diaphragm can function, a muscle that helps us breathe. You might think, “what’s my diaphragm got to do with digestion?” but in fact, it has quite a significant role!
Firstly, it supports the contractions that move food through the oesophagus. The oesophagus runs directly through the muscular part of the diaphragm. Each time the diaphragm contracts it allows food to pass through and prevents stomach acid rising up into the mouth. If there is undue tension or contraction in the diaphragm from poor posture, this can have an effect on this mechanism and cause, you guessed it, acid reflux.
Secondly, the diaphragm plays a role in peristalsis – the movement of food through the gut. This movement is managed by the vagus nerve which runs from the brain stem, through the diaphragm into the gut. If we’re ‘squashing’ the diaphragm by slumping and/or hunching, it can affect the nerve signals that pass through it, causing to slow down.
Thirdly, the vagus nerve stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid that affects how we break down food in the stomach, so if this is also being impaired and is on the slow side, then food can sit in the digestive tract too long causing unpleasant symptoms such as gas, bloating and constipation. Essentially, what you can end up with is a backed up system.
Finally, the nervous system, whose central superhighway is the spine, is very much intertwined with the gut’s own plexus of nerves (the enteric nervous system). So if there is tension in the spine and the central nervous system this can also put tension on to the gut. Hey presto, you have compromised digestive processes.
EVERYTHING in the body is connected and it certainly puts a different spin on ‘food for thought’.
My gut story and what happened when I checked in for a posture M.O.T.
I had the good fortune of practising ballet and dance for many years, which may have given me a good postural ‘framework’. But then, as I began my working life in fashion PR, I spent years seated at a desk with little in the way of targeted posture support. I certainly felt the effects, with constant lower back pain and gut symptoms including persistent bloating. At the time I never would have considered making the connection between the two. Of course, there is much more to gut health than that but in the bigger picture, it is worth considering.
A combination of yoga, weight resistance training and Pilates has helped to realign my body on many levels. Pilates, in particular, is an excellent for core stability and posture, which steers away from the hard and fast exercise that I found personally with a rather nasty knee injury can create further misalignment and take years to correct.
As a self-confessed gut enthusiast who has made it a focus in her nutrition work, I was keen to see from an expert how good my posture was and whether there was more that could be done to support the gut by correcting any imbalances.
I went to my favourite studio, Ten Health + Fitness, who have several studios in London and offer a posture MOT. I spent an hour with PT and Pilates instructor, Matt Stratten. The results were super interesting.
I learned that mobility and strength in three main areas are key if we’re going to allow the gut the space to do its job properly.
- Firstly, the upper back, which can hold a lot of tension - now more than ever as we’re all hunched over our devices.
- Secondly, strength in the lower part spine is also crucial to prevent overarching (lordosis) in the lower back area.
- Thirdly, core strength is really important. Seems obvious really doesn’t it!
In my case, I had some wonky hip action, slight lordosis and a bit of internal rotation (slumping) of the shoulders. I needed to strengthen the upper back to prevent the shoulders rounding over, do some pelvic stability work and glute strengthening for those lopsided hips and to prevent overarching in the lower back. Oh and core work, but that’s a no-brainer really.
The experience was really enlightening and with doing some of the recommended exercises, as well as probably an element of being much more conscious of my posture, I definitely feel much more aligned and it feels like my gut is thanking me for it too.
Posture for, er, pooing
And, well, this gut/posture article wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the best ‘posture’ in which to have your daily poo. That’s having a ‘stool for your stool’ - no joke, folks. Having the feet slightly elevated on a footstool as you sit on the loo gives a smoother ride as the colon is at an optimum angle to do the job.
But beyond the bathroom and the gut, there are studies to suggest that good posture boosts confidence, reduces stress and gives stamina a boost, so by walking and sitting tall you can also lift your mood and beat an afternoon slump. Literally.
My tips for gut-friendly posture
1. Have regular breaks in your day if you are desk-bound.
Even if we do regular exercise, it’s not just about that one class or gym session and then sitting all day. Try to move a bit during the day too as that gets the whole body moving and that’s better for overall mobility and posture.
2. Eat mindfully
This is a practice we can all do a bit more and that includes sitting up rather than slumping when we eat to help support optimum gut functioning. Start with having a small cushion against your lower back if you struggle with this. Leave your phone behind.
3. Get your desk sorted.
If you have an employer that offers ergonomic assessment then do it! If you work from home then you could consider getting a standing desk.
4. Use your workout to help support better posture.
Targeted exercise, which could be a combination of Pilates, yoga and weight resistance can help. Work with a PT or start with beginners classes to get the technique right first. Even if you have done these in the past, or are in fact a regular goer, it is good to remind yourself of the basics and get the alignment bang on as you can create more damage than good if it’s not.
5. Book a posture assessment.
Go to a specialist PT or physio such as at Ten Health + Fitness. It is a great investment to discover the areas that need the most attention and how to address them.
6. Practice better breathing.
Shallow breathing, which happens when we’re in the ‘fight or flight’ stress mode, is not conducive to ‘rest and digest’. Long, slow abdominal breathing allows us to be in the latter state more often and acts as a pretty instant stress reliever - and that helps the gut to function better too.
Simple three-part breath (where you divide you inhale into three steps) is easy to do yourself at home or on your daily commute. Exercising your diaphragm, that can also be affected by slouching, helps support your digestion. Here’s some guidance on that…
Three part breath
Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and feet flat on the floor.
Inhale a third of your inhalation into your belly, pause.
Inhale the second third of your inhalation into your diaphragm, pause.
Inhale the final third into your chest, pause.
Exhale a third of your breath from your chest, pause.
Exhale the next third from your diaphragm, pause.
Exhale the final third from your belly.
That's it. Repeat for 5 minutes.
7. Try these key exercises to give you better posture and space in the abdomen from Ten Health + Fitness.
HIP TILT INTO GLUTE BRIDGE
This exercise strengthens and balance glutes as well and helps minimise overarching (lumbar lordosis) in the lower back.
• Lie down with feet flat, knees bent and tilt the pelvis up to mobilise the lower back and stabilise the pelvis. Then lift the hips. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
• Progression - add a resistance band around knees.
This improves mobility in upper and lower back. Focus on gradually increasing upper back extension and avoiding overarching in the lower back.
• Hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Lift the middle of the spine up as if being pulled by string, then lower through the chest, until the upper back arches slightly. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
• Progression - use foam roller behind the back between the shoulder blades to release further tension before going into the exercise.
RESISTANCE BAND PULL-APART
This strengthens the upper back and shoulders (rotator cuff) and encourages external rotation of shoulder joint and shoulder blades to improve upper back posture
• Hold a resistance band in front of shoulders with straight arms, pull apart, bringing the band to chest and shoulder blades together, while rotating the hands outwards. Slowly rerun to start point. Repeat for 10-12 reps
• Progression - include high and low angles.