Improving Vagus Nerve Function

Dear Patient,

The health of your brain and your nervous system, doing all that you can to prevent its decline should be high on your list. This summer I have do a lot of reading on brain function, memory and the nervous system and I would like to share with you some activities that you can easily incorporate into your daily life that will help you stay well.

I would like to share with you information about the vagus nerve, what it is and why it is so important for you to keep it healthy. The digestive system has its own nervous system called “the enteric nervous system.” And the brain communicates with the enteric nervous through a large, meandering nerve called the vagus nerve. The enteric nervous system then stimulates the intestinal muscles to move food along, also known as motility.  Lack of sufficient output through the brainstem can impair the vagus nerve, which may result in poor motility and constipation. Poor motility is a concern because it leads to fermentation in the gut and the overgrowth of intestinal bacteria and yeast.

If the gut-brain axis loses its efficiency the vagus nerve also loses the ability to activate the releases of stomach hydrochloric acid (HCL) to digest proteins. People with low HCL may notice challenges digesting high-protein foods such as meats and eggs resulting in gassy, bloaty symptoms and irregular bowl movements. Or they may develop symptoms of burning from the undigested proteins putrefying in the stomach and creating as acidic environment. Many of these people are diagnosed with acid reflux as consequences of poor gut-brain axis.

Enzymes secreted by the pancreas digest fiber and starches, while the gallbladder releases bile to digest fats. If these systems falter due to poor gut-brain function, one may develop an inability to digest fiber-rich or fatty foods. This can also lead to gallstones.

An impaired vagus nerve also leads to intestinal permeability, more commonly known as “leaky gut.” In the lining of the small intestine cells join together to create a “tight junction”. These tight junctions form an impermeable barrier to protect the sterile bloodstream from the contents of the gut. A healthy gut breaks food down into low molecular weight particles small enough to cross the tight junctions.  Leaky gut happens when these tight junctions weaken and allow large, improperly digested proteins, bacteria, fungus, and other pathogens to cross the intestinal wall. When a person has leaky gut the immune system is activated leading to inflammation causing pain, food sensitivity, rashes, brain health issues, and other imbalances. Poor brain health, brain trauma, or brain degeneration play a role in leaky gut by decreasing activation of the vagus nerve. This lack of activation inhibits blood flow to the intestines, which prevents the intestinal wall from functioning and regenerating normally. Combined with the other consequences of impaired vagal function-low HCL, poor enzyme release, poor motility, and yeast and bacteria overgrowths-leaky gut develops.

How  to identify an impaired Vagus Nerve and Gut-Brain Axis

  1. Since the vagus is responsible for bowel motility, a practitioner should be able to hear rumbling in the abdomen with a stethoscope. When the gut-brain axis is impaired, it is common to hear very little rumbling.
  2. The Vagus nerve is responsible for raising the uvula, the tissue in the back of your throat that looks like a punching bag. When you visit your doctor and say “ahh” he or she is looking for it to rise. When the vagus is not working well the uvula does not rise much.
  3. The gag reflex is also not very responsive. When exam finding shows these functions are poor in a person with chronic digestive problems and a poor brain function, it indicates a strong possibility the gut-brain axis is not working well.

Improving Your Vagus Nerve

Like muscles, neurons need constant stimulation to be healthy. If you break your arm and wear a cast, the muscles shrink within a few weeks from reduced activity. Neurons are no different. Without activation they lose function.

Vagal exercises are easy to perform at home. Anyone who has suspects poor vagal tone, digestive challenges, or simply wants to maintain a healthy gut should do these exercises.

  1. Gargling-gargle with water several times a day. The vagas nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. Gargling contracts these muscles, which activates the vagus nerve and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract. Drink several large glasses of water per day and gargle each sip until you finish the glass of water. You should gargle long enough and deed enough to make it a big challenging.
  2. Sing loudly-this works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagas nerve.
  3. Gag- purchase a box of tongue blades to stimulate the gag reflex throughout the day. Just lay the tongue blade on the back of your tongue and push down to activate a gag reflex.

You will need to perform these exercises for several weeks to produce change, just as you would weight training. Although sometimes change is noticed quickly for some.

We eat to nourish the body. If the gut is impaired, it can be considered a major system breakdown in your body. The chemistry from the food you choose is used by the body to maintain health and wellness. In looking for “causes”, there is a tendency to focus on the gut to fix the gut. And yet, it can be the symptom of the cause another level up, your nervous system and your brain.

I hope you find this information useful.

Dr. Terebelo

P.S. Contact us to book your appointment today