What Is the Vagus Nerve and How to Stimulate Its Function?

Our gut and our brain are interconnected. For example, there are a lot of neurological disorders such as epilepsy, migraines, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease, that often have gastrointestinal manifestations including constipation, diarrhea, and indigestion. This unusual connection is regulated by the vagus nerve which is considered the main channel of communication between our brain and gastrointestinal tract. This is the longest nerve in our body,  which runs from the brain stem to part of the colon, touching the heart and almost all the organs on its way.

The connection between the vagus nerve and overall health

Doctors know the functions of the vagus nerve, but they still don’t know the mechanism of its work. However, it plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system. The more we stimulate the vagus nerve, the more we improve the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the stimulating effects of the sympathetic nervous system such as “fight or flight”.

The vagus nerve is also responsible for communication between the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and the central nervous system (CNS). The ENS along with CNS regulates the movement of the GI tract, its secretions, immune function for bacteria, and blood flow.

This means that the better the vagus nerve is functioning, the better the gut and the brain are communicating. This may have an effect on many things in your body including anxiety levels, weight gain, digestion, and even heart rate. Insufficient vagal functioning can be caused by chronic inflammation, some medications, infections, and certain diseases and can lead to various health issues. When disrupted, it complicates the body’s work and violates its basic functions such as breathing, sleeping, digestion, and movement of wastes through the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and skin.

Moreover, improper vagal functioning can contribute to bacterial overgrowth in the guts, which, in turn, may negatively affect the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and thus can cause inflammation and neurodegeneration. Here is a list of other issues linked to insufficient vagal tone:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Joint pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Psychosis
  • Memory impairment
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Reflux

9 tips to improve vagal tone and boost overall health

Fortunately, we can boost our overall health by optimizing the communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. We only need to improve vagal tone. Let’s review some tips to regulate the vagal tone, ensure sympathetic and parasympathetic balance, and reduce inflammation.

1. Take a probiotic supplement

In order to foster a healthy gut and keep optimal gut-brain communication, start eating fermented foods or take a probiotic supplement. According to studies, gut microorganisms can really stimulate the vagus nerve. Consult your gastroenterologist and choose the best probiotic supplement for you.

2. Take a cold shower

According to many studies, acute cold exposure activates the vagus nerve, as well as various neurons on the vagus nerve pathway. Therefore, try to take a cold shower three times a week.

3. Try yoga

Research shows that regular yoga enhances gastric motility and that it does this by way of stimulating the vagus nerve.

4. Try breathing exercises or meditation

Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to activate the vagus nerve. During deep breathing, the vagus nerve sends a signal to your brain to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. According to multiple studies, the power of meditation is able to relieve any pain, improve appetite, sleep, and gastrointestinal function, and fight anxiety through a direct effect on vagal tone.

5. Keep a healthy BMI

Excessive weight and gut inflammation can interrupt the vagal activity. Therefore, if you have excessive weight, you need to consider practices that will contribute to long-term weight loss. Engage in physical activity and focus on consuming a healthy diet high in fiber (vegetables and fruits), nuts, seeds, and legumes.

6. Eat less animal protein

Red meat contains choline, which in excess turns into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a compound that has been linked to inflammation and cardiovascular problems. Reduced consumption of red meat can lower inflammation and help the vagus nerve better regulate parasympathetic and sympathetic systems.

7. Give up sugar

Eating too much sugar can result in chronic inflammation including the inflammation of the GI tract mucosal lining which allows pathogens to further perpetuate inflammatory signals to the brain.

8. Try intermittent fasting

According to some studies, fasting and dietary restriction can stimulate the vagus nerve. Given that fasting can improve cognitive function, promote weight loss, and reduce inflammation, it may be worth a try.

9. Consume foods high in tryptophan

Tryptophan can help brain cells and neurons control inflammation levels which may boost communication between your gut and brain. The best sources of dietary tryptophan include milk, soy products, spinach, seeds, eggs, nuts, salmon, cheese, tofu, bananas, and poultry.

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