Activate Your Vagus Nerve to Improve Your Gut Health

awareness behavior change health knowledge mindfulness self awareness stress stress mindset stress relief Sep 17, 2021

You've probably heard somewhere along the way that your brain and gut are connected…but do you know HOW?

This thing called the “Vagus Nerve” connects your brain to various organs throughout your body, including your gut!

 

The vagus nerve is responsible for several crucial functions, such as:

  • Controlling your mood
  • Immune response
  • Digestion 
  • Heart rate

 

The parasympathetic nervous system

When the vagus nerve is stimulated, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. This is commonly referred to as the “rest and digest” response! 

When the parasympathetic nervous system is signalled, your body will focus on digestion, the secretion of neurotransmitters in your brain, intestinal motility (the ability of your intestines to function properly and use metabolic energy), and decreasing your heart rate.

In other words, the parasympathetic nervous system is the “business as usual” system that keeps everything running smoothly. 

 

Sympathetic nervous system

When your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” response) is signalled, there is a decrease in activity from the Vagus Nerve. 

The sympathetic nervous system is basically the opposite of the parasympathetic nervous system. When stimulated, there’s a flood of hormones in the body to boost alertness and heart rate and send more blood to your muscles. 

Your body is ready to go!

With the body in fight or flight mode, there is a decrease in activity from the vagus nerve that can cause:

  • Digestive issues including bloating, gas and constipation 
  • Poor sleep quality 
  • Anxiety 
  • Stress

 

Looking long term

It’s important to remember that your body will activate the sympathetic nervous system from time to time. That’s normal. Only when the sympathetic nervous system is active for prolonged periods does the body start having issues.

This function is triggered by stress. The stress could be environmental (such as a looming deadline) or psychological (such as worrying about finances). Even exercise triggers stress and the sympathetic nervous system - remember, it’s not a bad thing in small amounts!

However, as wonderful as the body is, it can go a little wonky sometimes and overreact to things that aren’t life-threatening, such as a traffic jam or relationship issues. 

If your stress continues long-term, you can experience: 

  • Hormonal imbalances 
  • Decreased immunity 
  • Slow recovery from wounds and workouts 
  • Low motivation 
  • Depression or anxiety

 

What can you do?

Are you worried that you are suffering from the sympathetic nervous system taking over? 

Maybe you’re suffering from poor digestion or recovery? 

DON’T STRESS (quite literally, stress is exactly what we are trying to avoid). 

Just like you can train your muscles, you can train your brain! There are many ways you can stimulate your Vagus Nerve, including:

  • Breathe deeply
    Breathe from your belly. Take a large inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Exhaling for longer than you inhale will trigger a relaxation response.

  • Gargle or sing
    Loud gargling with water or loud singing activates the vocal cord, which, in turn, stimulates the vagus nerve. See, singing in the shower is good for your health!

  • Get a foot massage
    The gentle or firm touch can assist in activating the vagus nerve.

  • Cold water
    Immerse your forehead, eyes, and at least ⅔ of your cheeks in cold water to fire up the vagus nerve, decrease your heart rate, and stimulate your intestines.

  • Eat fiber
    Eating fiber stimulates vagus impulses to the brain slowing the gut movements and making us feel fuller after meals.

  • Laughter
    Remember that person who said laughter is the best medicine? They weren’t wrong! Laughter will improve your mood, boost your immune system, and activate the vagus nerve.

 

I have listed just a few ways to activate your vagus nerve. These are things that will relax you and release GABA and serotonin (beneficial neurotransmitters) in your brain!

My favorite way to get the vagus nerve going is walking for pleasure! It’s relaxing, and I love the fresh air and the feeling of the sun on my skin.