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Mental Health, Your Gut, and the Vagus Nerve

Our gut and brain are intimately connected by way of the longest nerve in our body–the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the base of the brain down into the abdomen touching nearly all major organs along the way.

As the main channel of communication between the gut and brain, the vagus nerve has substantial effects on both physical and mental health. In fact, many neurological disorders (epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, dysautonomia, migraines, and multiple sclerosis) manifest gastrointestinally with symptoms such as diarrhea, indigestion, and constipation.

How well the vagus nerve is functioning–in other words, how well the brain and gut are communicating–can affect anxiety, weight gain, heart rate, digestion, and more. Unfortunately, things such as stress, certain medications, inflammation, infections, and disease can cause poor vagal functioning and thus, causing significant health complications. “Bad” bacteria may overgrow in the gut and, as a result, any of the following may develop: anxiety and depression, joint and muscle pain, nausea and/or vomiting, abdominal pain, psychosis, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and weight gain.

In order to achieve optimal wellness, it is imperative the vagus nerve be functioning effectively. Here are some tips for stimulating your vagus nerve:

  1. Deep breathing. Deep breathing is one of the easiest and most effective ways to stimulate your vagus nerve. When you exhale longer than you inhale, it activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

  2. Meditate. Studies show the positive effects meditation has on vagal tone and doing so can improve one’s sleep, anxiety, appetite, pain, and gut function.

  3. Exercise. Studies also show that moderate exercise, such as yoga, stimulates the vagus nerve and can increase gastric motility.

  4. Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity can cause issues with the vagus nerve and prevent effective communication between the brain and gut.

  5. Get cold. Exposure to cold activates the vagus nerve. Go for a walk when it’s cold outside or end a hot shower with one minute of cold water.

  6. Eliminate sugar. Sugar can cause chronic inflammation throughout our whole body. This can disrupt cellular feedback between the gut and brain.

  7. Take a probiotic. Microorganisms from probiotics can stimulate the vagus nerve and foster a healthy gut.

  8. Consume tryptophan. Tryptophan–found in spinach, poultry, bananas, nuts, and seeds–helps cells in the brain and spinal cord control inflammation which may improve communication along the vagal pathway.

  9. Try intermittent fasting. Fasting intermittently, among other things such as weight loss and reduced inflammation, can activate the vagus nerve.

  10. Poop regularly. Daily elimination prevents inflammatory foods from sitting in the colon. Consuming 25 grams of fiber daily can help you do so.

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