What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the entire body, traveling a majority of the gastrointestinal tract (esophagus -> stomach-> end of the small intestine). The vagus nerve is one of twelve pairs of cranial nerves that is part of the autonomic nervous system. This nerve originates from the brain and controls involuntary body functions such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate. It is involved in digestion and motility (AKA gut movement) and helps food and debris pass through your GI tract efficiently. It’s an important one, so keeping it strong is key! Just like any muscle, the muscles surrounding the vagus nerve can be strengthened over time, keeping its function strong and regularly toned/stimulated! This is a great therapy for improving brain-to-gut & gut-to-brain communication.
What are the benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
A key factor in gut-brain communication is through the vagus nerve. This can be major in balancing both nervous and endocrine response function in order to ensure optimal gut health. A great benefit to stimulating the vagus nerve is to prevent inflammatory response by reducing (AKA down-regulating) the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal glands and their release of cortisol to promote gut regulation. This method is a great non-drug therapy for the treatment of gastrointestinal diseases. This can be especially beneficial in diseases and conditions in which gut-brain communication can be poor like in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The vagus nerve can trigger a relaxation response in our body and decrease stress levels. Strong vagus nerve tone has also been shown in studies to support lymphatic circulation and drainage. As the gut supports about 70% of our immune system and immune response via its Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT), having great lymphatic circulation and drainage can be key in reduce acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) illness. The vagus nerve is a major part of how our bodies and brains function, so keeping it stimulated and well-toned will help our bodies maintain overall balance.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques for Gut Motility
Try these exercise techniques for your gut for 2-5 minutes total daily to tone muscles around the vagus nerve to keep it stimulated & strong (can be in increments):
Humming, Singing, or laughing: The vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and the inner ear, so the vibrations from humming is a free and enjoyable way to influence your nervous system states.
Establishing connections: healthy connections to others can initiate regulation of our mind and body, thus stimulating our vagus nerve.
Diving reflex: The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to the brain, reduces anger, and relaxes your entire body. To stimulate this reflex, some techniques include splashing cold water on your face or submerging your tongue in water.
Practice deep gargling for 2-5 minutes daily. Best to do so in the shower.
Induce gag reflex (without vomiting!) 10 times each time you brush your teeth.
Blow bubbles! This is a fun way to help you exhale slowly.
Cold showers or cold water immersion- This can include immersing whole body or just your face in cold water for as long as possible.
Conscious breathing: one of the simplest and common ways to stimulate the healthy function of the vagus nerve is through deep, slow belly breathing. Try to focus your breathing by expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques for Abdominal Breathing
Studies have shown that deep breathing, specifically, slow exhaling can help shift the body, the limbic system in the brain, and nervous system out of the sympathetic, "fight, flight, freeze, or fawn" and move into the parasympathetic, "rest & digest". Being in a more calm, parasympathetic nervous state has been shown to support efficient motility and microbiome balance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory microbes.
Lay down on your back with one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen above your belly button.
Inhale through your nose, exhale with your mouth open, moving only your abdomen (think of inflating/deflating a balloon).
Feel the abdomen slowly rise and fall with each breath while your chest and shoulders remain still. Completely inflate and deflate your abdomen with each breath.
Count to 4 with each inhale, hold the breath for 4 counts and count to 4 with each exhale. Extend the exhale to 8 counts gradually.
The same exercise can be done sitting and standing.
Perform this exercise for 30 breaths or 5 minutes, 3 times a day or for 5 minutes total when you feel the need to support your #GoodGut a bit more.
How Do I Stay Consistent with these Vagus Nerve Stimulating Exercises?
Since vagus nerve stimulation techniques are rather simple and many exercises require no equipment, it would be easy to incorporate these exercises into your daily routine. Reminding yourself to do simple breathing exercises upon waking or before bed, or keeping reminders on your phone can go a long way.
Why is it Important to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Regularly?
If the vagus nerve becomes damaged for any reason (car accidents, spinal injuries, gastrointestinal surgeries), it may cause digestive problems (nausea, bloating, diarrhea), paralysis of vocal cords, headaches, anxiety, depression, body pains, dizziness, insomnia, or slowed heart rate.
If you are someone who struggles from gut health related diseases like IBS or dysautonomia in which you have a hard time regulating your nervous system, you may want to implement vagus stimulation exercises into your everyday routine while symptoms subside. If you are someone who experiences a lot of stress in your daily life, it is important to implement these exercises long-term. Stress is known to inhibit the Vagus Nerve and directly impact the gastrointestinal tract and microbiota of the gut. Ultimately, being stressed physically, mentally, emotionally, or chemically can worsen your IBS and IBD symptoms. Stimulating the vagus nerve regularly will help combat the harmful effects of stress and restore the balance of the gut-brain communication.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques for Headaches
Try these exercise techniques for your eyes for 2-5 minutes daily if headaches are affecting your appetite & gut health:
Look down and to the left, hold for 30-60 seconds.
Look down and to the right, hold for 30-60 seconds.
Look up and to the left, hold for 30-60 seconds.
Look up and to the right, hold for 30-60 seconds.
Are there Foods that Boost Functioning of the Vagus Nerve?
Food rich in tryptophan support cells in the brain and spinal cord which may improve gut to the brain communication. Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps your body synthesize proteins. Some foods high in tryptophan include spinach, seeds, nuts, and bananas. Including these foods in your daily diet can help further stimulate the vagus nerve and support a #GoodGut.
Now that you are aware of the vagus nerve and things you can do to stimulate it, you have the power and resources to keep it healthy and functioning. If you need additional help with this, talk to your dietitian to come up with useful ways you can integrate these practices into your life. Need individualized recommendations? Book an appointment with a gut health Registered Dietitian to help support lifestyle changes!
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