When you’re dealing with the abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, constipation, or diarrhea that comes along with irritable bowel syndrome(IBS), the last thing you probably want to do is exercise. Yet according to research, moving your body can decrease the pain associated with this condition that affects an estimated one in six Americans. Brent A. Bauer, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, says many movement practices, such as yoga and tai chi, as well as meditation and guided imagery, benefit those suffering from IBS thanks to the fact that they induce the relaxation response. “This in turn balances the autonomic nervous system,” says Bauer, which influences the function of many internal organs, including the digestive system.
Chrissy Carter, a yoga teacher in New York City, says it’s important to pair the right movement with your particular symptoms. “For example, if you’re dealing with diarrhea, you’ll want to do something different than if you’re constipated,” she says. Here, Carter shares her favorite stretches and yoga poses for some of the most common IBS symptoms.
If stress is causing your IBS symptoms…
Try: Prone Savasana
If you’re feeling frazzled, choosing a stretch that’s restorative is crucial. Yet while you might think Savasana (a.k.a. “Corpse Pose,” where you lay face up) qualifies, Carter says it can actually be stress inducing. “Savasana is quite exposing,” she says. The solution: Lie on your belly instead. “There’s something about protecting your vital organs that can help you more deeply relax,” says Carter. To make this pose even more comfortable, place a folded blanket or yoga bolster under your ankles. Turn your head to one side and stay here for 5 minutes or longer.
If you have cramps, bloating, and generally have trouble digesting…
Try: Supported Child’s Pose
When it comes to optimal digestion, relaxation is the name of the game. Same goes for coping with the pain that comes along with cramps, bloating, and other signs that your digestion isn’t working optimally. That’s why Carter recommends Child’s Pose. “This gentle, restorative pose doesn’t involve any active stretching,” she says. “It’s a lovely curling inward that can prompt the body’s relaxation response.” Come to your hands and knees and sit back on your ankles. Lie your torso on a yoga bolster or stack of blankets and stay here for 5 minutes or longer.
If you have diarrhea…
Try: Legs Up the Wall Pose
While there’s no research to show that certain yoga poses or stretches can help stop diarrhea, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that gentle inversions can help, says Carter. So, lie on the floor with your feet facing a wall and scoot your seat so it’s close to the wall; then bring your legs to a vertical position so they’re resting against the wall. You might place a blanket or bolster under your seat if this makes you more comfortable. Stay here for 5 minutes or more. “This is a mild inversion that is deeply restorative,” says Carter.
If you’re constipated…
Try: Forward Folds
“When you’re stopped up, the goal is motility—so any stretch that compresses the lower abdomen can help,” says Carter. Some of her favorites include Uttanasana (stand with feet hip-distance apart and with knees slightly bent, fold over your legs); Paschimotanasana (sit on the floor with your feet stretched out in front of you, then reach your arms up to the sky and then out toward your toes); and Malasana (stand with feet hip-distance apart, bend your knees, and come into a deep squat). “All of these poses flex the thigh at the hip and lower abdomen, which can help the process of elimination,” says Carter.