Written by Lisa Dreher, MS, RDN, LDN
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve

Stimulating the Vagus Nerve

If you have never heard of the vagus nerve, now is the time to learn! This nerve is a very important part of the autonomic nervous system, the part that controls involuntary action such as breathing. It serves as a communication pathway between the brain and the gut, sometimes referred to as the “brain-gut axis”. Think of it as a bidirectional highway that starts at the base of your brain and travels all the way down to your colon. In place of cars, these highways are filled with chemical messengers such as dopamine, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and the feel good hormone serotonin, among others. There are even messengers sent out from the bacteria in your gut!

The vagus nerve is needed to regulate important things such as heart rate, sweating, facial expression and contracting the muscles of the intestines to support digestion. The brain sends stress hormones down the vagus nerve to the gut in order to create the “gut feeling” or butterflies you experience during an emotionally charged moment.

What happens in “vagus” does not stay in “vagus!” The stimulation of this nerve, or lack of stimulation, can impact your health in profound ways. When the vagus nerve is not working optimally, you could experience a host of problems. Examples include gastroparesis (slowing of the emptying of the stomach) which may result in small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), anxiety, panic attacks, tinnitus (ringing of the ears), feelings of isolation and depression, weight gain and obesity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), abnormally slow heart rate, B12 deficiency and even seizures.

Major causes of vagus nerve damage include:

  • Diabetes – consistently elevated levels of blood sugar will eventually damage the blood vessels that support the vagus nerve
  • Infection
  • Accident/traumatic brain injury and atrophic injury (not being able to get nutrition to the brain and nerves)
  • Surgical complications
  • Toxic exposure

If you suspect you might have a sluggish vagus nerve, here are 5 strategies to help stimulate it naturally:

    1. Hands-on healing such as osteopathic manipulation, massage (especially reflexology), acupuncture and craniosacral therapy. If you ever needed an excuse to carve out time for self-care, here it is. These therapies can help stimulate the vagus nerve and down-regulate the “fight or flight” response. Relax your way into better vagus communication!
    2. Dip your face into cold water or take a cold shower, which stimulates the “diving reflex.” Receptors that are sensitive to cold stimulate the vagus nerve. You may also experience a slower heart rate as a result. (Bonus: cold exposure can help you develop more “brown fat” which burns more fat and calories and may help you to maintain a healthy body weight.)
    3. Gargle forcefully with water a few times a day. It may sound strange, but gargling forcefully enough to have tears forming in your eyes seems to be most effective.
    4. Take a probiotic. Animal studies have shown improved action of the vagus nerve, reduced amounts of stress hormone production and positive changes to the GABA receptors in the brain with the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum.
    5. Deep belly breathing. Throughout the ages, Eastern cultures and spiritual traditions have understood the importance of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Only now is research starting to catch up and show that this deep belly breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and reduce the fight or flight response. Here is a guided belly breathing exercise you can try right now.

So if you are struggling with any of the above symptoms, I encourage you to step outside the box (and possibly into a cold shower) to support your vagus nerve. Your body and mind will thank you!

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