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Digestion is a Muscle

The most underrated muscle group

By Emily the Period RDPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Digestion is a Muscle
Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

When we think about hormone health, we put a lot of focus on our actual hormones. And it makes sense! The hormones are the things doing the job when it comes to periods, fertility and menopause. Why wouldn’t we focus on them?

Here’s the thing: hormones are just one aspect of the health picture! If you read my last post, you’ll know that the whole picture when it comes to hormone health. There’s one element I didn’t include, and not for lack of importance – I thought it needed its own post. We’re talking about the digestive system!

The gastrointestinal tract, or more commonly known as the digestive system, is an important clearance pathway for hormone breakdown products. Once our bodies are done using hormones, we have to break them down and remove them.

I like to teach my clients about the importance of the digestive system when we’re addressing period problems but here’s how I frame it: digestion is a muscle! I break it down to some simple basic ideas, because digestion is much more complicated than this analogy (but it’s a good place to start).

Our brains cue us to gather energy and nutrients to stay alive – this originates within what we call “the caveman brain”. By scanning the whole body and monitoring like the big super computer it is, the brain can get the body thinking and moving towards food. The brain sends messages down to the stomach, via the nervous system, to start producing stomach acid and beginning muscle contractions.

It also creates food-seeking behaviours that make us think about food and look for food – we find ourselves in the kitchen with the tummy grumbles. And it sends some messages to the small and large intestines so they can begin some enzyme production and muscle contractions.

When food enters the stomach, this sends a cue down to the large intestine to stimulate movement of stool out of the body – this is called the gastrocolic reflex! In a sense, this makes room for the new food that will be working its way down after it leaves the stomach.

Here’s the important part: it can be somewhat easy to disrupt this somewhat perfect little chain of events, intentional or unintentionally. Irregular eating patterns can change the coordination and function of the digestive system!

If we have an extended period of time that we are irregularly eating, or potentially not eating at all, there is limited cueing that can happen between the stomach and the colon. The brain still attempts cues to the stomach and the other organs of the digestive system, but there are multiple reasons why this cueing might be missed, such as stress, pain, eating disorders and more.

This limited cueing also means that the muscles of the stomach (fun fact: there are 3 types!) and the colon aren’t getting as much or any work. Similarly to the musculoskeletal system, a limited use of muscles means they atrophy or shrink in size – they never fully disappear. This atrophy leads to weaker muscles that have a hard time doing their job without discomfort or extra effort. The less and less we use digestion, the less effective and comfortable it is.

It’s important to see our digestive system as a muscle just like anything else, where we “practice” on a regular basis, and as a result, get the benefits associated with the “practice”. In the world of digestion, that means more regular bowel movements, stool that is soft, solid and easy to pass, and limited bloating (some bloating can be normal after meals!).

One of the first areas of digestive health that have to be addressed when it comes to our hormones is the status of our digestion “practice”, and often the first step is ensuring there are regular and adequate opportunities for the stomach and colon to communicate. This may or may not align initially with when the brain is cueing, but the integration of hunger and fullness awareness can come about after baseline needs are met. It won’t matter if you’re eating all of the fibre, or drinking all of the water, or avoiding what you think are all the possible triggers. Digestion is a muscle, and you use it or lose it!

It’s not a comfortable transition, which can throw people off – think of it as starting a new exercise routine, where the muscle groups you worked will be a little sore in the hours or days following. They become stronger over time and can handle the challenge easier as you go!

If you’ve been struggling with your digestive “muscle” and need extra support, let’s chat – you can find out more about me at sayyestonourish.com or by emailing [email protected].

advicebodydiethealthlifestylelongevity magazinescienceself carewellness

About the Creator

Emily the Period RD

I help people with periods navigate menstrual health education & wellness with a healthy serving of sass (and not an ounce of nutrition pseudoscience).

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    Emily the Period RDWritten by Emily the Period RD

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