You probably didn’t know that one single nerve in your body holds more responsibility for keeping you feeling good, energised, healthy, happy and rested than any other. Our everyday stressors seem to have made themselves at home within our daily routines. However instead of allowing them to affect the way we sleep, eat, breathe, react, speak, work out (*the list goes on… and on), is there something we’re missing out on by not using this ‘magic’ nerve? And why don’t we know enough about it?
The Brain-Gut connection
The brain and the gut are connected via the longest cranial nerve in the body – the vagus nerve. Because it passes through from the brain all the way down to the abdomen and gives off many branches, the motor and sensory fibres within are easily and widely distributed throughout the body. The vagus nerve helps to regulate many critical aspects of human physiology, including the heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, and even speaking. (1)
When it comes to our digestion, the vagus nerve is able to sense the bacteria or microflora in our guts and transfer this information to our central nervous system in order to generate a response. This direct link allows the bacteria, or even more so the neuroactive compounds they produce, to influence brain function in many ways.
The bacteria produce metabolites – reactions and products of physiological metabolism which drive significant biological activities in the body such as signaling, stimulatory and inhibitory functions – which give off various emotional and physical responses. (2)
Signs of gut imbalance and symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction
The usual culprits – too much alcohol, not enough sleep or rest, poor nutritional choices, over-working out or not exercising as needed are the over-arching causes that can lead to an imbalance of certain kinds of bacteria and negatively affect the brain and central nervous system.
This imbalance of ‘bad gut bacteria’ may also reduce the production of the happy hormone serotonin which regulates mood and energy levels and can lead to serious issues such as depression and anxiety. Also, bacterial imbalance is linked to most gut issues in particular IBS and constipation and can affect our cravings. (3)
Vagus nerve stimulation and its benefits
Mentally and emotionally, the metabolites the vagus nerve produce can help regulate sleep and mood, support digestion, produce serotonin or the happy hormone naturally, and improve memory function and concentration levels.
Physically, the vagus nerve can be responsible for creating dopamine for feelings of motivation, acetylcholine for muscle function, short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which protect the gut lining, support gut motility, and boost the immune system.
These are some of the health benefits that can be reaped from working on activating your vagus nerve and having a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut to provide these neuromodulators – but it’s all down to how you nourish them.
How to stimulate the vagus nerve
As you know, stress is one of the biggest blockers of the vagus nerve’s function and reaction on the body and mind. Therefore, stimulating the vagus nerve is important to keep the Brain-Gut connection running smoothly and effectively. Some of the most popular nutrition tips, lifestyle hacks and every habits that activate the different muscles attached to the branches that stem from the vagus nerve and can help are:
• Probiotics limit inflammation in the body helping to ease digestive issues like bloating and blockages – so try adding yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and pickles to your diet. (4)
• oily fish
• deep breathing exercises
So if you feel an imbalance and want to get things back on track, try including some of these into your everyday routine and see how your body and mind will thank you for it.