Stretching can help your body absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. You’ll have a whole new appreciation for touching your toes when you hear about all the benefits it can have on your nutrient intake!
If you are like me, you work hard to (try) to get in all your servings of fruits and veggies each day, but did you know that if your body can’t absorb the nutrients, all that work could be for nothing? Fear not! Stretching – yes, stretching – can actually help with nutrient absorption in the body and help you maximize your nutrition. Stretching can be painful and annoying. The general rule of thumb is to stretch and foam role one minute for every two minutes of exercise.
But why? When you stretch your muscles, you increase blood flow and circulation to those areas, which can help deliver nutrients to the muscles more efficiently. Stretching can also help improve the function of the digestive system by stimulating the muscles of the digestive tract and promoting more effective digestion and nutrient absorption.
How muscles affect nutrient absorption
When a muscle is stretched, it triggers a response in the body called the myogenic response. This response causes the muscle to relax and the blood vessels within the muscle to dilate, or widen. This widening of the blood vessels increases blood flow to the muscle and surrounding tissues, delivering oxygen and nutrients to the area and removing waste products.
Stretching can also activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response. This activation causes the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones that increase blood flow to the muscles and other tissues. This increased blood flow helps improve performance, reduce the risk of injury, and again, transport nutrients more efficiently to muscles and tissues.
Additionally, regular stretching and exercise can stimulate the production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a naturally produced chemical that’s primary role is vasodilation, or relaxing of the inner muscles’ blood vessels so they dilate. By increasing nitric oxide production through stretching, you can help improve blood flow to the muscles and other tissues, improving overall nutrient uptake.
Regular stretching and physical activity have also been shown to increase the number of nutrient transporters on the surface of muscle cells. These are responsible for transporting nutrients such as glucose and amino acids into the muscle cells, where they can be used for energy or muscle repair and growth.
Stretching before resistance exercise enhanced the anabolic signaling pathway (or otherwise known as the pathways that our body uses to communicate to our muscles what they need to grow) in skeletal muscle, which could improve muscle protein synthesis and nutrient uptake according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The International Journal of Sports Medicine study echoed these findings, concluding that dynamic stretching before exercise improved the delivery of nutrients to muscles and enhanced post-exercise muscle recovery.
Your fascia, the connected tissue is now also found to shape your health. Think of fascia as a layer of saran wrap that protects and keeps your muscles and organs in place. New research has shown that it is now considered its own organ with sensory nerves throughout the body.
Muscles need good nutrition!
We just reviewed how muscles absorb the nutrients you eat. But it is important to eat the RIGHT nutrients. If you are eating processed food with lots of sugar, there will be no healthy micronutrients for your muscles to absorb. Therefore, they will more easily injure and heal slower with more inflammation.
Kelly and Juliet Starrett, experts on athletics and mobility, are authors of the recent book, Built to Move. They stress the importance of how ‘your daily nutrient intake affects all the components that allow you to move, including your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other tissues as well as your cartilage and bones.’ They are not stickler’s about a certain diet, but instead focus on getting enough protein and micronutrients.
Rich Roll’s podcast with Kelly and Juliet, on ‘Becoming a Durable Human’ mentions how important it is just to eat your fruits and vegetables. Each night at dinner they have three vegetables with their protein. If you are athletic, then eating one gram of protein per one pound of body weight is recommended. If you are not as active then you can eat less but eat at least 70%.
While you are stretching at night and wondering why an injury has not healed – maybe think about what you ate that day.
Stretching can also help improve the body’s cells to better regulate the hormone, insulin. Insulin plays a key role in nutrient uptake by facilitating the transport of glucose and amino acids into the muscle cells. Improving insulin sensitivity can help improve the efficiency of nutrient uptake by the muscles.
The European Journal of Applied Physiology study also looked at the relationship of stretching to insulin sensitivity and found that static stretching after exercise increased insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake in skeletal muscles. Other research that highlights the importance of glucose in nutrient uptake is the study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. This study found that pre-exercise stretching may enhance glucose uptake and utilization during exercise, which could improve energy availability for prolonged exercise.
Watch this video about glucose uptake:
Let’s talk digestion
Not only does stretching have benefits for nutrient transport and absorption, but it can also have a positive impact on your gastrointestinal tract, a critical component of digestion. Nutrients are absorbed into the body through the digestive system.
When we eat food, it is broken down in the mouth, stomach, and small intestine into smaller molecules such as glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids. These molecules are then absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the small intestine, where it then transports the nutrients to various organs and tissues to provide energy and support growth and repair.
The blood carries simple sugars like glucose, amino acids used for building proteins, and certain vitamins and salts to your liver. The liver then decides what it needs to store, and what can be sent to other areas that require nutrients.
What does all this have to do with stretching? Ever been in a yoga class or on a walk for example and suddenly had the urge to go to the bathroom, and we are not talking number one. Well, that sensation has likely been triggered by the stretching of your GI tract to help food move through and be absorbed more efficiently, thus speeding up your digestion. An efficient digestive system means less energy is used in the body, and more nutrients are absorbed.
Here’s what stretches help most…
While there is no specific type of stretching guaranteed to increase nutrient absorption, a few stretching exercises can help improve blood flow and digestion, contributing to better nutrient absorption.
Dr. Andrew Huberman explains on his Dr. Huberman Lab podcast how to have an effective stretching routine. For static stretching, all you need are 2-4 sets of 30 second holds per muscle group, 5 days per week. It is better to stretch a little bit every day than wait and do it all at once.
Huberman recommends four types of stretching: dynamic, ballistic, active-static and passive-static. Dynamic stretching requires less momentum towards the end range of motion; ballistic stretching involves swinging limbs through a full range of motion; and static stretching where you stretch through end range of motion. Active static stretching is a dedicated effort to put force behind stretch to extend the range of motion, and passive static stretching is relaxing into the furthest range of motion.
Begin on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Inhale as you arch your back, dropping your belly towards the floor and lifting your head and tailbone. Then exhale as you round your spine, tucking your chin into your chest and drawing your belly towards your spine. Repeat this movement for several breaths.
These are well-rounded body movements that help you connect your breathing with your body through a series of 12 flow sequences linked together. This sequence is inclusive of almost all of the recommended stretches.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and then fold forward, reaching your hands towards your feet. Hold for 30 seconds.
Downward Facing Dog
Begin on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Then lift your hips up and back, straightening your arms and legs to form an inverted V-shape. Hold for several breaths.
Sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together and your knees bent out to the sides. Hold onto your feet and gently pull your heels towards your body, while pressing your knees towards the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
The Bottom Line
Overall, incorporating regular stretching into your daily routine can have many benefits for your overall health and well-being, including potentially improving nutrient absorption from the foods you consume.