Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Digestive Health

So I’m cheating here a little, as I came across something interesting and wanted to research it a little, so I thought I’d write a blog on it at the same time. This in part is linked to a previous blog I wrote on the gut-brain connection, which explains the bi-directional connection between the gut and our brain. The gut is central to our health on all levels, including our emotional health, but in turn our gut is impacted hugely by our brains. To the point where our level of “happiness” (however you may want to define this) will actually have an effect on our gut function and the microbiome which inhabits the gut.

One of the key nerves which controls this association is the vagus nerve. It is the 10th of 12 cranial nerves, which incidentally I remember learning off by heart when I worked as an occupational therapist on a stroke unit. To be honest it was the only one I really remembered, other than the optic nerve. But before I get onto the vagus nerve in more detail, a quick reminder that the autonomic part of our nervous system (i.e. the elements of our nervous system that occur unconsciously and automatically) has two aspects to it; the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic nervous system responses occur when we are stressed, i.e. our “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic response, also known as “rest and digest”. These are key in understanding digestion and digestive health, as when the sympathetic nervous system if going full tilt, this will slow digestion as our body will just focus on survival mechanism such as increasing our heart rate and focussing our minds. For proper digestion to occur we need to be in the parasympathetic state – it’s often referred to as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system.

The vagus nerve is the key nerve involved in stimulating a parasympathetic response. It goes all the way from the top of the spine, to the abdomen, via multiple organs, including the oesophagus, heart and lungs. Vagus actually means “wandering” in Latin, and this is due to all the branching off as the nerve “wanders” around the body. When functioning properly the vagus nerve signals the release of digestive juices as well as essential hormones, including vasopressin, oxytocin and prolactin, influencing digestion and the relaxation response. It also influences the peristaltic action which moves food through the gut and is vital for maintaining a healthy microbiome. Unfortunately, the vagus nerve can be effected by things like toxic build-up of heavy metals (think mercury and lead for example), inflammation and chronic stress.

So given the close connection, if someone has major gut health issues, then really it’s impossible to ignore the nervous system and the role it plays in healing from any gut-related problems. Of course, diet can play a huge role in supporting the nervous system, as like all systems in the body, it requires the right nutrients along with reduced processed sugar, unhealthy fats and toxins to function optimally. So a general overhaul of the diet will go a long way to supporting the nervous system, but I was interested in finding additional ways to support nerve function, as a way of directly improving gut health and therefore overall health. This is where activating and strengthening the vagus nerve come in. It can be used as a way to help regulate the stress response, so that we turn off our sympathetic nervous system, and reduce the damage that comes with being in a chronically stressed state. And at the same time we can very quickly effect our digestive health.

So how to stimulate, or strengthen the vagus nerve? Well it’s lucky that the easiest way to do this is completely free! Deep breathing – which may seem a bit too easy (or dare I say it, boring?). You could of course do full on meditation or yoga, but consistency is key so try and get into the habit of taking a few slow, deep breaths before each meal. This will literally switch on the rest response and will improve your ability to digest your meal. At the same time, make sure you are sitting up straight, as posture will also improve your ability to take a proper breath. Other ways include cold stimulation – so try putting your face in a bowl of cold water! Maybe the deep breathing seems a better option now ? . Laughter is also stimulating for the vagus nerve, so whack on some funny DVDs – Netflix have now got all 10 series of Friends on – might not be your thing, but I find that watching a couple of episodes in the evening is highly relaxing, so this might be one reason why.

One other way to stimulate the vagus nerve is the use of essential oils – which for anyone who regularly reads this blog will know it’s something I’ve become increasingly interested in. I love that it’s something you can do that doesn’t involve much effort. I came across a website that talks about the blend of clove oil with lime oil, as a way to stimulate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. You can make up your own blend using a carrier oil and a rollerball (which you can buy cheaply on Amazon) and you rub a little behind the ears, which is the area where you can directly stimulate the nerve. I’ve just made up a rollerball that I’m going to try using as I happened to have clove and lime already. If you wanted to try this then have a look at the page on essential oils for more details on where to get hold of the therapeutic grade oils that you would need in order for them to work properly (luckily these are 2 of the cheapest oils I was pleased to see!). Quick warning though - if you do try using oils then lime oil is photosensitive so you wouldn't want to put it on then expose the area to sunlight for a couple of hours (as it's behind the ears this is less likely, but still important to be aware of).

For more information on ways to stimulate the vagus nerve then Deepak Chopra seems very interested in its role in health and well being – check out a YouTube video he’s done on the subject, as he goes into more detail. He also talks about humming and chanting as a way to stimulate the vagus nerve as another option, as is acupuncture.

Ok, well I hope that was helpful – just a couple of easy and practical ways to improve your health a digestion!


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