The Vagus Nerve is mentioned in relation to many Body & Brain practices and exercises. With functional medicine and information on mental health becoming more accessible, it’s important to understand how the gut and brain impact one another, and the responsibility of the Vagus Nerve.
The word Vagus stems from the Latin word “wandering”, which makes sense because it is the most widely ranging nerve in the body, reaching various organs in the neck, chest, and abdomen. The vagus nerve is the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “rest and digest” division of the autonomic nervous system, it plays a role in activating your body’s relaxation response. It’s the longest nerve in your body and is the main channel of communication between your brain stem and abdomen. Your gut uses your vagus nerve to tell your brain how you’re feeling. It’s important to listen to your gut!
Vagus nerve disorders occur when the nerve is either under or overactive. An underactive vagus comes with a plethora of health issues including a drop in heart rate, numerous GI problems, nausea and heartburn, stomach pains, stomach spasms, and weight loss. Having a high vagal tone, referring to the activity of your vagus nerve, means your body can relax faster after stress, however, an overactive nerve can result in fainting.
Any kind of GI distress can put pressure on the Vagus nerve and irritate it resulting in further problems. An excess of alcohol, spicy foods, and caffeine can inflame the nerve. As we now know, our gut is considered to be our “second brain”, also known as our enteric nervous system. The nervous system in our gut controls reflexes in the digestive system without conscious thought. Our second brain is also responsible for warning us when our digestion is out of balance, with symptoms such as heartburn, nausea, and gas. Stress, anger, and fear may have a greater impact on the digestive tract than food, which is why it is important that we get in touch with our feelings in order to keep the gut healthy.
We now know that managing stress is important for our Vagus nerve to properly function, and rhythmic breathing is a great way to do that. Try a 4-7-8 Breathing Technique to promote relaxation. Start with empty lungs and quietly breath in for four seconds through your nose, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight. Try this for four cycles.
Your gut is complex and contains thousands of microorganisms. A proper balance of good bacteria in the gut is vital for brain health and one way to support that is with Probiotics. Probiotics are living microorganisms that can be consumed a handful of ways including by capsule and fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Meditation has been shown to improve vagal tone and promote positive emotions because it increases parasympathetic activity. Meditation helps you to get in touch with yourself and develop awareness about underlying emotional, psychological or spiritual issues. Especially when facing digestive issues, it’s important to look beyond your physical condition, and include consideration of your emotional and mental state. For a deeper understanding, watch this video on Yoga and Mental Health:
Curcumin is a substance in Turmeric that has been shown to reduce inflammation. Not only does it help heal inflammation in the body when consumed, but it’s been shown to also increase BDNF (brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor), your brain’s growth hormone. The next time you are making a stir-fry or salad, sprinkle turmeric powder on top along with high-quality olive oil, as curcumin is fat-soluble.
Exercise has been shown to reverse cognitive decline and impairment. Not only that, it is your body’s natural mood booster! Find an exercise routine you can commit to consistently such as walking 30-60 minutes or lifting weights 1-4 times a week.
Laughter has a powerful effect on your health. Not only does it cheer you up, but it stimulates blood flow, activates your stress response and soothes tension. The long term effects of laughter include improved immune system function, an increase in social connections, and mood stabilization, which helps fight chronic illness. Just like the supplements and stretches you include in your morning regime, make it a habit to spend time with friends you can have fun with. It’s not only going to be fun, but it’ll also be good for your gut health!