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The Vagus Nerve - the key to gut health?

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Why stress management and optimising the Vagus Nerve are essential parts of my approach to good digestion.


As a nutritionist, I include lifestyle management recommendations in all of my plans. This is of particular importance for clients who present with gut issues like bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and everything in-between.


I know that clients often prioritise the dietary changes, but the stress management / vagal toning exercises are just as important. This article explains why.



THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION

In the intricate tapestry of our bodies, the gut and brain share a profound connection. This dynamic relationship is governed by the vagus nerve, a remarkable pathway that plays a pivotal role in regulating not just our mental well-being but also the health of our digestive system. From a functional medicine perspective, supporting the vagus nerve is a key strategy for promoting optimal gut health and digestion.


The Vagus Nerve: A Brief Overview:

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is a complex network of fibres that extends from the brainstem to various organs, including the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. Often referred to as the "wandering nerve," it is a vital component of the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and digest counterpart to the fight or flight response.


Gut-Brain Axis: The Symphony of Communication:

The gut-brain axis, a bidirectional communication system between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain, relies heavily on the vagus nerve as its messenger. Signals transmitted along this neural highway influence not only our emotional state but also the functioning of the digestive system. The vagus nerve acts as a regulator, helping to maintain balance and harmony in this intricate interplay.


Chronic stress, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor dietary choices laden with processed foods can hinder vagal tone. Additionally, conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal issues may impact the proper functioning of the vagus nerve. Understanding these influences allows us to take a holistic approach, not only supporting the vagus nerve directly but also addressing underlying factors that might compromise its effectiveness. By unravelling these mysteries, we pave the way for a more comprehensive and effective strategy in promoting both vagus nerve health and overall well-being.


The Vagus Nerve and Digestion:

The impact of the vagus nerve on digestion is profound. Stimulation of the vagus nerve prompts the release of digestive enzymes, enhances nutrient absorption, and supports the rhythmic contractions of the gastrointestinal muscles – crucial processes for smooth and efficient digestion. Conversely, a sluggish or underactive vagus nerve can contribute to digestive woes, such as bloating, constipation, and nutrient malabsorption.


Reducing Inflammation: A Vagus Nerve Superpower:

One of the remarkable functions of the vagus nerve is its anti-inflammatory effect. Activation of the vagus nerve triggers the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps dampen inflammation in the gut. Chronic inflammation is a common precursor to various digestive disorders, making the vagus nerve a valuable ally in maintaining gut health.



PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR SUPPORTING THE VAGUS NERVE

Karaoke for vagal tone

  1. Deep Breathing Exercises: Engaging in deep, diaphragmatic breathing activates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and optimal digestion.

  2. Mindful Eating Practices: Eating slowly and chewing well. Taking the time to savour and enjoy meals in a relaxed environment signals to the vagus nerve that it's time to initiate the rest and digest response.

  3. Singing and Chanting: Engaging in activities that involve controlled breathing, such as singing, chanting or playing a woodwind instrument, can enhance vagal tone. The rhythmic nature of these activities, combined with deep diaphragmatic breathing, provides a positive influence on the vagus nerve.

  4. Probiotics and Gut-Friendly Foods: A balanced and diverse microbiome positively influences the vagus nerve. Incorporating probiotics and fibre-rich foods into your diet can foster a healthy gut environment.

  5. Craniosacral therapy: Craniosacral therapy directly treats the vagus nerve (cranial nerve #10) and can help 'rewire' the nervous system, by increasing vagal tone. I am fortunate to work with some wonderful practitioners at the Belfast Chiropractic Clinic who have really helped my clients.

There are plenty of other ways to stimulate vagal tone. You can download my detailed vagal toning list and worksheet at the end of this article.


Find ways to incorporate some of these activities into your day - you can double up on some of them. For example, an evening of karaoke with friends, a swim in nature, or eat mindfully with your friends/family.


In conclusion, prioritising the health of the vagus nerve is essential for promoting optimal gut health and digestion. By adopting lifestyle practices that support vagal tone, we can harness the power of this intricate neural network to foster a harmonious relationship between the gut and the brain.





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