If you’re a student-athlete with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), you may be all too familiar with abdominal pain, bloating, and frequent use of the bathroom (or lack thereof) affecting your ability to perform. You may have also heard or been prescribed exercise as a way to help manage symptoms – something that you already do plenty of each day. Exercise can improve IBS symptoms to a certain extent. However, intense workouts and training sessions can exacerbate symptoms, especially in endurance athletes such as runners, swimmers, cyclists, or rowers.
If you’re at a loss for where to go next, consider yoga for IBS in student-athletes. Research shows that yoga can be a beneficial practice to manage IBS symptoms through its ability to promote stress and relaxation. In this article, you will learn the latest research on specific yoga practices for IBS and ways to implement them into your lifestyle.
What is IBS?
IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning it relates to how the brain receives and sends information. Symptoms of IBS vary from person to person ranging from mild to severe. A person with IBS may experience abdominal pain, gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and/or other changes in bowel movements. While recent research suggests IBS may be underdiagnosed in athletes, having these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have IBS. Some athletes may have exercise-induced GI issues due to extensive training. Learn more about the differences here.
Three types of IBS include diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D), constipation-predominant (IBS-C), or a mix of both (IBS-M). IBS can cause discomfort and disrupt daily activities and can be even more difficult to manage for student-athletes who are not in control of their own schedules.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but it is thought to be related to how the muscles in the intestines contract and relax, how the brain communicates with the gut, and changes in the gut microbiome. Stress, certain foods, hormonal changes, and medications can trigger IBS symptoms. There is no cure for IBS, but there are ways to manage the symptoms through dietary and lifestyle changes, along with stress management.
How Does Yoga Help with IBS Symptoms in Student-Athletes?
Many people know of yoga today to be a physical practice. However, it was derived from India around 3,500 BC as a mind, body, and breath practice. The word yoga in Sanskrit is “yuj” which means to unite the mind, body, and spirit. Thankfully when thinking of trying yoga for IBS in student-athletes, both the mental and physical benefits of yoga are helpful in reducing symptoms. Read more below to learn how.
1. Reduces Stress and Relaxation
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress levels by promoting relaxation, decreasing muscle tension, and calming the mind. This can help alleviate IBS symptoms such as bloating, and diarrhea. One study showed adults who completed an 8-week virtual Hatha yoga class reported improvement in IBS symptoms, quality of life, fatigue, and perceived stress. Note that improvements were reported only during the 8-week intervention and not afterward showing that a yoga practice needs to be maintained in order to continually obtain benefits.
2. Improves Digestion
Certain yoga poses can help stimulate the digestive system and relieve constipation, a common symptom of IBS. Twisting poses, for example, can help massage the intestines and improve bowel movements. Another study tested the impact of a 6-week Iyengar yoga intervention in 14-26-year-olds with IBS compared to a control group. The yoga group reported multiple improvements in IBS symptoms, functional disability, psychological distress, sleep quality, and fatigue. Half of the participants experienced a reduction in abdominal pain.
3. Increases Body Awareness
Research shows that practicing yoga can help increase body awareness and help you tune in to your body’s signals. This may allow you to recognize when you may be experiencing IBS symptoms and take action to manage your symptoms before they become more severe.
4. Enhances Overall Well-Being
Yoga is a holistic practice that can enhance overall well-being, including physical, mental, and emotional health. Regular yoga practice can improve mood, increase energy levels, and promote a sense of calm and balance.
What Types of Yoga Should I Do?
The type of yoga most people think of in the U.S. is that of a physical practice known as “asanas” or positions. In reality, this is just one form of practice under the umbrella of yoga. When it comes to yoga in IBS for student-athletes, there are many different types of yoga you can do based on your available time, energy, and stress levels.
1. Yoga Asana
This type of yoga is what you may initially think of when you hear the word “yoga.” Asana is a Sanskrit word for posture and represents the physical practice that is most common today. Yoga postures, especially when incorporated with the breath, not only provide flexibility, strength, and endurance but can also help with GI symptoms and promote relaxation. You may have heard of many styles of yoga such as Hatha, Vinyasa, and Iyengar. One is not better than the other, what’s more important is the style you enjoy and will actually do. If you’re interested in trying out a class there are plenty of free online videos.
2. Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is a style of yoga that involves holding passive poses for an extended period of time in order to stretch the connective tissue in the body. This style emphasized stillness and surrender in order to allow the body to relax and release tension. It might sound “easy” but most active people find this type of yoga to be challenging.
While this style of yoga needs to be further researched, one study that observed 105 participants showed that five weeks of yin yoga led to decreased anxiety and sleep problems. Yin yoga can be a great addition to your routine, especially on off days. Try it out in your dorm, apartment, or home with any of these videos.
Meditation is a practice that involves bringing your mind to a specific point of focus such as your breath, a prop, or the tip of your nose. There are many variations and styles but in general, it involves sitting or lying down in a comfortable position for a period of time.
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and this is even true for college students. Research also shows that a daily meditation practice enhanced attention and memory – an added bonus for athletes who are in school! Even if you’re pressed for time, a 1-minute meditation is better than none. Ready to give it a try? There are many apps like Insight Timer and Headspace that now offer free or reduced-rate plans for students.
4. Restorative Yoga
Restorative yoga is a gentle and slow-paced practice that focuses on relaxation, rejuvenation, and restoration of the body and mind. It uses props such as blankets, bolsters, blocks, and straps to support the body in passive poses such as lying down or seated, and are held for several minutes. The focus is on deep breathing and releasing tension in the body rather than stretching and strengthening the muscles. This type of yoga is perfect for rest or recovery days or days when you are very low on energy.
Most studios offer a few restorative classes throughout the week, so if you’re interested in trying out this form of yoga, reach out to your nearest yoga studio. If you’re looking to try this in your dorm room or apartment, here are some online options – just use what you have on hand as props (i.e. pillows, blankets, towels).
5. Yoga Nidra:
Yoga Nidra is a form of guided meditation that promotes deep relaxation. It is known as “yogic sleep” because it induces a state of consciousness similar to the stage right before sleep where the mind is awake and alert while the body is completely relaxed.
Yoga Nidra is great for any athletes who are having trouble sleeping or getting lack of sleep as research has shown it helps to improve sleep quality. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety. It is the perfect addition to your nightly routine or even a mid-day “nap.” A simple YouTube search can bring up a number of excellent videos. Here is a 20-minute video that I recommend.
Having IBS as a student-athlete can be challenging and difficult to manage. Tuning into your body and figuring out which foods and lifestyle choices help you manage your symptoms is essential. If you’re looking for more personalized support, consider working 1-on-1 with a sports dietitian.
Yoga is just one method, along many, that can aid in this mindfulness practice. Yoga for IBS in student-athletes should be used in conjunction with other lifestyle changes and medical treatments as recommended by a healthcare professional.
The content presented in this article is for informational purposes only. If you are experiencing any symptoms of IBS, it is important to talk to a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.