The Vagus Nerve: Key to Mind-Body Connection

Feb 24, 2024 | Gut Health, Health and Wellness

By Dr. Alyssa Burnham, Naturopathic Doctor at Wise Woman Wellness

The vagus nerve plays a vital role in orchestrating your body’s response to stress and inflammation. And it doesn’t stop there: The vagus nerve also influences gut health,  immune function and more. Poor vagal tone can influence your overall quality of life, but it is difficult to diagnose a problem without proper knowledge of how this nerve functions. Let’s take a look at the role of the vagus nerve and how you can optimize your vagus nerve response.

Stress Response and the Vagus Nerve

To understand the role of the vagus nerve, it’s important to know how your body responds to stress.

You’ve likely heard of the “flight or fight response.” When your mind senses a threat, your body responds by getting ready to flee or fight. Your sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to speed up your heart, heighten alertness, and redirect energy to your muscles. When your mind senses the danger is over, the parasympathetic nervous system works to relax your body. Your breathing slows, muscles relax, and you feel calm.

However, chronic stress can make it challenging for your parasympathetic system to kick in and we can end up in a chronic state of fight or flight, which can create hormonal problems.

The vagus nerve plays an essential role in regulating your parasympathetic nervous system, as well as the gut-brain axis.

The gut-brain axis refers to the two-way communication network between the gut and the brain. This complex network plays a role in many components of well-being, including your digestion, immune responses, and emotional health.

Signs of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction

“Vagus” is derived from the Latin word for wandering. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and “wanders” into many parts of the body. As a result, it influences many bodily functions.

Possible signs of vagus nerve problems include:

  • Bloating
  • Hoarse voice
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Acid reflux
  • Memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or joint pain

New research suggests people experiencing “long Covid” may have poor vagal nerve tone, and that damage to the nerve from a Covid infection may be a contributing factor to the prolonged symptoms.

Natural Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Regularly stimulating the vagus nerve can help maintain a crucial balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. This balance influences heart rate, digestion, stress response, and inflammation levels, promoting overall well-being. By fine-tuning this balance, vagus nerve stimulation fosters a calmer nervous system, reduces stress, improves digestion, and supports mental and physical health.

Here are some natural ways to improve vagal nerve tone:

1 – Deep breathing

Every deep breath sends a signal to your parasympathetic nervous system. Try to develop a pattern where your exhales are twice as long as your inhales – two counts in, four counts out, for example.

2 – Meditation

The relaxation response triggered by meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn helps the vagus nerve.

3 – Try a cold plunge

A dip into a cold lake or pool can have positive effects on your nervous system. If you don’t like the idea of a chilly swim, ending your shower with a minute or two of cold water has a similar effect. Some people should avoid the shock of cold water, so clear this with a healthcare practitioner first, particularly if you have heart problems.

4 – Lose any excess weight

Carrying extra pounds can have a detrimental effect on your vagus nerve. This can be a bit of a Catch-22: poor vagus nerve function can make it harder to realize you’re full, which can lead to overeating. The best approach is a natural foods diet that doesn’t stress your body and is sustainable over the long haul.

5 – Eat the right foods

Studies have found that foods high in tryptophan can help reduce inflammation in the nervous system. Good sources of tryptophan include nuts, turkey, leafy greens, and bananas. Excess sugar consumption can trigger inflammation and hurt nerve function, so work to reduce sweets from your diet. Additionally, a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps support your vagus nerve function. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and natural yogurt contain beneficial probiotics your gut needs to thrive.

6 – Try intermittent fasting.

Research shows that restricting meals to certain windows can improve vagus nerve function. It’s important to work with your healthcare practitioner to determine if fasting works for you.

7 – Gargling or singing

Activities that involve the muscles in the back of your throat, like gargling or singing, activate the vagus nerve, contributing to its stimulation and relaxation response.

8 – Massage or Acupuncture

Therapies like massage or acupuncture can trigger the vagus nerve by stimulating specific pressure points, contributing to relaxation and improved mood.

Don’t overlook the importance of your vagus nerve in maintaining overall wellness! Its role in regulating your body’s nervous system is key to managing stress, digestion, inflammation, and more.

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