The Vagus Nerve: Here's What You Need To Know
Often dubbed the most important nerve in your body, the Vagus nerve is not only responsible for everyday bodily functions, but also plays an integral role in overall health and wellbeing.
Depending on the tone (yes, tone) or strength of the nerve, it can either positively or negatively affect a variety of processes, from digestion and weight management to stress response and mood.
What Exactly Is The Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the brain all the way to the gut, and links the brain to the rest of your body. It is a key part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the branch of the nervous system that regulates involuntary functions like heart rate, respiration, digestion, sexual arousal and blood pressure. The vagus nerve is a key mediator of the ‘rest and digest’ state of the body and helps counteract the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. When we’re in balance, we should naturally shift between these two states without a hitch. But what happens when the vagus nerve is out of whack? Here’s everything you need to know.
The Vagus Nerve + Gut Health
The vagus nerve is a key factor in gut health. It connects the gut and the brain through what’s called the gut-brain axis and serves as a communication channel that regulates signals involved in mood, sleep, pain, stress, hunger and satiety. It helps stimulate digestive enzymes and bile, up-regulates the breakdown of solid foods, and affects metabolic processes, bowel movements, and microbial balance in the gut. It’s also key in the regulation of the migrating motor complex, or MMC, which helps move food through the digestive system via smooth muscle contractions. Reduced function and tone of the vagus nerve can exacerbate gut issues like IBS, SIBO, microbial imbalance, and constipation.
What you can do to support it:
Try G.I. Fix - Ginger and Triphala are prokinetic herbs that help encourage the movement of the bowel. It also has probiotic bacteria that support mood, digestion and inflammation, and adaptogenic DGL to help manage the stress response.
The Vagus Nerve + Weight
Gut health and weight are inextricably linked, so it’s no surprise that keeping the vagus nerve healthy is a key part of weight management. It’s not all about food and exercise; excess stress, impaired digestion and chronic inflammation can all affect the waistline. Vagus tone has an important role in insulin regulation and subsequently blood sugar management, and when it’s out of balance can contribute to dysregulation of blood sugar and glycemic control. It’s also a key player in the production of leptin - the hormone responsible for signalling satiety. When leptin is off, we’re less likely to feel full, which can lead to overeating and possibly, weight gain.
What you can do to support it:
Try Metabolic Fix - Metabolic fix contains Chromium, a key mineral involved in blood sugar control, and botanicals like cinnamon, berberine, and green tea catechins that have been shown to support healthy insulin levels and appetite control.
Vagus nerve health is key when it comes to counteracting the effects of stress. When stimulated, it will help combat the effects of stress cortisol to balance the stress response. Those with higher vagus nerve activity tend to have lower levels of cortisol and are able to deal with stress in a more effective way. Once the vagus nerve is engaged, it works quickly on both a physical and emotional level by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and promoting feelings of relaxation. In fact, there have been numerous studies that show vagus nerve stimulation is an effective treatment for conditions such as resistant depression and post-traumatic stress.
What you can do to support it:
Try Enhanced Nootropics - if you’re chronically stressed, strong support for your nervous system is key to helping regulate cortisol, mood and nervous system function. Ashwagandha has been shown to support the stress response by lowering cortisol and improving mood, energy and resilience. Methylated b vitamins are also key to a healthy nervous system - this formula is packed will B5, B6, B12, and methyl folate, all key players in mood and stress control.
Work It Out: Your Vagus Nerve Workout
The good news? There’s a lot we can do to improve vagal tone. It’s influenced by simple practices such as deep breathing, moving your vocal cords, meditation and yoga, so we’ve compiled a list of our favourite ways to tone it up.
Moving your vocal cords
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat which means that activities like singing, chanting, humming, and gargling (yes, gargling) can activate these muscles and stimulate the nerve. Yes, singing in the shower counts.
Focus on breathing.
When you breathe deeply – particularly on the exhale, it can help to interrupt your stress response and lower both your heart rate and blood pressure. This is because your body senses your slower breathing so adapts appropriately. Try setting aside just a few minutes each day to consciously slow down your breathing - we love the 4-7-8 technique. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and then out for 8 counts. Do three cycles to start with and see how you feel.
Find your flow.
Yoga is also a great exercise for gearing up your parasympathetic system and can help to calm you down, increase blood flow and better your digestion.
Try a contrast shower.
You could also give cold water therapy a go, as this too is said to help lower your ‘fight or flight’ response by sending a signal to slow your heart rate. Why not finish your morning shower with a quick 30-second blast if you can brave it.
It’s not only physical things which will help boost your vagal activity, sparking certain emotions and thoughts will also do the trick. Being present and taking time each day to practise mindfulness and meditation not only help your vagus nerve and nervous system, but they’ll also contribute to a happier you. Win, win.