Digestive Health and Spirituality

In this excerpt from their book, The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health, Kripalu Nutritionist Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RD, LDN, and coauthor Gerard E. Mullin share insights on how cultivating a spiritual practice can help you reduce stress, recover from illness, and lead a life of wellness.

Many studies have demonstrated a connection between spirituality and lower rates of stress and even depression. Maintaining a spiritual practice can help people cope better with stressful situations, thus reducing their anxiety levels and lessening the impact of chronic stress. Numerous researchers have documented a link between spirituality and depression: Spiritually healthy practices like finding meaning and purpose in life, having an intrinsic value system, and belonging to a supportive community with shared values may reduce depressive symptoms. Since stress and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression have such a profound impact on gut health, it stands to reason that engaging in a spiritual practice could have a positive impact on stress-related digestive disorders, too.

Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson was one of the first to study the relationship between spirituality and health. He revolutionized the field by showing that meditating in a trancelike state reduces stress and improves health while simultaneously raising consciousness and spiritual awareness. Though his finding is still considered groundbreaking by many in the West, ancient cultures have integrated spirituality into healing for millennia. Shamanic priests were regarded as “healers” long before the development of pharmaceuticals, and meditation and prayer have been at the very center of healing practices since the dawn of time.

It is important to take time to quietly reflect on your life and connect with the higher energies and spirits that refresh your soul and renew your sense of peace and calmness. Doing this is a profound part of healing for many. If you are interested in including spirituality in your path toward overcoming illness, here are some suggestions to get you started.

Consider prayer. If you are rooted in an organized religion, prayer can help you feel more calm and grounded, and this acts as a buffer against stress.

Express gratitude. Gratitude has been linked to improved health outcomes and can reduce the experience of stress, as well.

Become a member of a spiritual community. Sharing one’s sense of spirituality with a community serves as a form of social support that can impact a sense of belonging and reduce stress and isolation.

Be the optimist. Believing that the glass is “half full” invokes a sense of positivity and energy that reduces stress and attracts positive people into your life. Consider using mantras of positive affirmation, tailoring to suit your life (“I love my wife,” “Life is great,” etc.). This is a way to program your brain with a rosy outlook.

Find the “silver lining” during difficult times. People who practice spirituality tend to adapt better in times of stress. One reason may be that they tend to see stressful situations as tests of strength or even as valuable lessons. This can be empowering, and it helps moderate stress levels if you can see stressful situations as less threatening. Remember, illness can be a great teacher. It’s your choice to use it that way.

Consider meditation. Meditation is the process of intentionally shifting your attention and consciousness toward a specific objective. This typically means removing yourself from thoughts about everyday life in favor of some other focus that produces a relaxing effect. The efficacy of meditation is so widely accepted that even conventional digestive disease specialists are advocating its use to treat stress-related digestive conditions, such as IBS.

Go on a spiritual retreat. You might want to try a spiritual retreat to help you return to spirit. You can go to a spiritual retreat center or you can simply try relaxing on the beach with a book that raises your consciousness and distracts you from your everyday life for a weekend.

Whatever approach you take, returning to spirit can lead you to a better and more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Excerpted from The Inside Tract. © 2011 Gerard E. Mullin and Kathie Madonna Swift. Reprinted by permission of Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, EBQ, an author, teacher, and clinical nutritionist, is cofounder of the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy, and directs the Center for Mind Body Medicine’s Food As Medicine program.

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