The Vagus Nerve: A Vital Factor for Gut Health

Central Organ of Human Nervous System Brain Anatomy

The vagus nerve, otherwise known as the 10th cranial nerve, is one of the longest nerves in the human body. It connects the brain with the gastrointestinal tract- running down each side of the body from the brainstem, through the neck and chest, to the abdomen and below. The vagus nerve is a critical component of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which helps to regulate many vital functions, including heart rate, gut health, and respiration, as well as control our mood and immune response.

The more we learn about the vagus nerve, the more incredible this organ becomes, especially when we use our new understanding for better physical and mental health and in therapy to better manage anxiety and depression, or to heal from the effects of trauma.   

If you find yourself often feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed, there is a high likelihood your vagal tone may be low. Because vagal tone is correlated with regulating the stress response, and because stress impacts our physical and mental health, low vagal tone can contribute to higher risk of disease and illness including heart disease, mood disorders, fatigue, brain fog, and gut disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.   

Because the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our autonomic nervous system (ANS), affecting physiological systems from the brainstem to the stomach, it is important to understand the function of the autonomic nervous system. Understanding how the vagus nerve works can help us unlock powerful new ways to promote health and wellness and help us alleviate illnesses, stress, and anxiety. In this blog post, we will explore its anatomy, physiology, and effects on health, and discuss possible therapeutic applications.  

What does the autonomic nervous system do? 

The autonomic nervous system has three clear divisions: the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems. Your sympathetic nervous system helps you through times of stress or danger by activating processes that keep you safe; this is where the term “fight-or-flight” comes from. 

Thousands of years ago, the sympathetic nervous system signaled our primitive brains to run or freeze in the face of imminent danger. The cave man’s brain was wired to run from the saber-tooth tiger for survival and today we’re still programmed to respond in the same way even when there’s no real tiger. As a result, when we’re subjected to prolonged emotional stress or trauma it can really take its toll. 

In contrast, your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for body processes that help you rest and digest. The enteric nervous system focuses specifically on digestion. So, when the vagus nerve is not functioning properly, you might experience the following symptoms: poorly digested food, bloating, sensitive stomach, inflammation or irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, or more serious conditions such as Crohn’s disease. 

The vagus nerve contains about 100,000 neurons which tell the 100 million neurons in the enteric nervous system what to do. When the vagus nerve is working correctly, it tells the stomach to secrete stomach acid. When the vagus nerve is not working correctly, food may not be digested properly due to a lack of stomach acid, which can result in gastro-esophageal reflux, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation. 

When the vagus nerve is not operating correctly, the body is not be able to absorb nutrients from food, which can cause fatigue. Secretions from the spleen and liver – which control inflammation in the body – are also affected by vagus nerve input. Instability and changes in the gut’s enteric nervous system send signals to the brain that may trigger noticeable mood changes. 

Other examples of poor vagus nerve functioning include chronic fatigue syndrome, brain fog, cognitive difficulty with focus and attention, chronic neck pain, migraines, and sleep problems.  

Using the vagus nerve to improve gut health  

As the vagus nerve runs from the brain through the heart and lungs to the stomach, the organs along this route are on a “highway” of internal communication. The vagus nerve is so pervasive in how our body works that some researchers have referred to this neural pathway as “the remote control” governing physiological communication. Often, a therapist will use the vagus “remote control” in therapy to modulate stress response when talking through trauma or difficulties in a person’s life.  

The vagus nerve is one of the body’s most powerful tools for boosting physical and mental health. It helps counterbalance the fight/flight system and encourages a healthy stress response so you can stay calm in challenging situations. Stimulating the vagus has also been linked to increased feelings of compassion, clarity, and emotional regulation, as well as increased resilience, making life’s difficulties more manageable.  

You can take an active approach in resetting your vagus nerve to improve your physical and mental state.  

How can we reset the vagus nerve?  

  1. Singing, humming, chanting, or laughing Because the vagus nerve is connected to the larynx and pharynx in your throat, singing, humming, chanting, or gargling creates a vibration that stimulates your vagus nerve. Performing exercises to maintaining tone of our vagal nerve is just as important as going to the gym to tone the muscles in our body. Try singing loudly and you’ll get a great workout!
  2. Deep diaphragmatic breathing
    Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system and activates the vagus nerve. Try to take only 6 breaths per minute, allowing the stomach to expand as you inhale and contract as you very slowly exhale.
  3. Alternate nostril breathing
    Alternate nostril breathing works similarly to deep breathing, in which a sense of balance is triggered in the nervous system.
  4. Applying an ice pack to the chest, neck, or back
    Acute cold exposure and pressure works with the vagus nerve to lower the sympathetic (fight/ flight) response and increase parasympathetic activity. The vagus nerve is stimulated when the body is exposed to cold, so splash your face with cold water, turn the shower water as cold as you can stand it, or apply and hold an ice pack to your check, next or back.
  5. Exercise
    When we move, the digestive system and vagus nerve is stimulated. Whether yoga, Pilates, walking or any other cardio activity, any movement can help stimulate and tone the vagus nerve. Just move!
  6. Take prebiotic and probiotic food supplements to improve gut microbiome.
  7.  Engage in therapy to reduce stress and improve coping strategies.  
    In therapy, not only can you learn a variety of coping skills that activate the parasympathetic nervous system directly, but you can indirectly work to create long term changes in the way you respond to external (and internal/self-imposed) stimuli.

Focusing on the vagal nerve as a therapeutic goal helps to release tension in the body and decrease physiological arousal. These techniques will help you remain calm and collected. By resetting your vagus nerve when you are in a heightened emotional or stressful state, you can continue with whatever goal you set for yourself without further distraction from negative thoughts or feelings. 

Therapy In Orange County 

The vagus nerve is essential to our survival both physically and emotionally! When we can use it to our benefit, we can improve our physical body’s reactions and responses and boost both physical and mental wellness. Learning about the vagus nerve is an important part of taking control of your mental health, and we can help. 

At Orange County Health Psychologists, our clinicians offer services in holistic integration of mind and body using psychotherapy, EMDR, and trauma-informed care that can help improve your mental and physical health. Contact us today to schedule your first session.