Why the vagus nerve is the missing link to gut health
Words: Sarah Tarca // @tarca
If there was ever a time to talk about your gut, it’s now. Bloating, IBS, Crohn’s – they’re all acceptable (regular, even) dinner table discussions. But while you may be drinking your kombucha, eating your Kim chi, and taking your probiotics, what you may not know is that this is only a small snapshot of the bigger gut picture.
If you’ve recently fallen into the Google gut health abyss, you might have seen the words “vagus nerve” pop up here and there. And while the vagus nerve is not new (we all have one, and were born with it, after all) the mainstream talk about it is.
So what is this fancy nerve we’ve got but never heard of? And what’s it got to do with our gut? Dan Sipple, clinical herbalist, nutritionist and founder of The Functional Naturopath says, “The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve in the human body. In addition to the heart and lungs, the vagus nerve is the bridge between our gut and brain organs.” Here, he explains what exactly that means for us – and our gut health.
How is the vagus nerve connected to gut health?
Dan describes the gut-brain-axis (the way the brain and gut connect) like a two-way highway – one that’s in constant communication about the health of your body. “They’re in communication about the state of each organ through particular chemical messengers that travel up and down this network,” he says. “The vagus nerve specifically controls the part of the human nervous system responsible for ‘parasympathetic’ processes, which in simple terms are associated with rest, digestion, repair and regeneration.”
What happens if I have an unhealthy vagus nerve?
When we talk about the vagus nerve, it’s more about its “tone” than its “health” so to speak. Dan explains, “It is the tone of the vagus nerve that allows for efficient parasympathetic nervous system responses – which help tell your body you are calm and danger-free, allowing it to enter repair mode and communicate effectively with many organs.”
Without good “tone” the body won’t be able to do things like detoxify or regenerate and repair things like cellular damage – basically all the things that make us look and feel well. And it will also inhibit the gut’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients effectively too.
On the flip side, Dan says that with strong vagal tone, “the body’s digestive capacity is enhanced allowing it to produce gastric enzymes more efficiently, enhance bowel motility and the absorption of food contents. Additionally, strong vagal tone enhances all restorative processes of the body, which branch over to hormonal, metabolic and immune networks.”
Not surprisingly, stress (including dietary, inflammation, lack of sleep and environmental stressors) are major contributors to loss of vagus nerve tonicity, which is why conditions like IBS have been responding well to treatments targeting vagal tone.
How does this impact your overall wellbeing?
Without the ability the ability to switch on this reparative arm of the nervous system, Dan says that the stressed out or “fight-or-flight” dominance is sustained. “The body becomes more susceptible to DNA damage and alterations in gene expression that, left unchecked may increase the risk of some illnesses or conditions.” In fact, as Dan explains “diseases once thought to exist totally outside the gut realm including Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, dementia, depression, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, obesity and others are now revealed to show strong correlations with microbial dysbiosis, intestinal permeability and dysregulation of the vagus nerve.”
How can you increase your vagal tone?
Here’s the good news: it is something you can fix. “At home techniques for increasing vagal tone include splashing cold water on the face in the morning, gargling, singing, laughing, intermittent fasting, supplementing 5HTP, meditation and deep diaphragmatic breathing,” says Dan. There is also stimulation therapy available, by qualified practitioners.
But, rather than just treating the problem, how can you keep it healthy? “It is crucial to remove the upstream stressors and inflammatory insults that create poor tone. In my clinic it usually a process of screening and correcting any gut microbiome imbalances, healing/sealing a leaky gut wall with appropriate dietary/nutraceutical/botanical aids and lifestyle changes to ensure that fight-or-flight nervous system activation is minimised,” Dan says.