Your Body’s Communication Superhighway: The Vagus Nerve

Many of you may not have even heard of the vagus nerve. It is one of our cranial nerves and is in fact the longest cranial nerve in the body that regulates the gastrointestinal tract and also affects the cardiovascular, immune, endocrine and respiratory systems. As a result it is a significant nerve in the human body like a superhighway communicating between our brain and organs. Like muscles, nerves need constant stimulation to be healthy. Ninety percent of the brain’s output goes through the brainstem. If a poorly functioning brain does not stimulate the vagus nerve, the result is reduced activation of the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular, immune and respiratory systems. So when that nerve is dysfunctional, you can imagine it can have some serious side effects.

Unfortunately a growing number of people have a dysfunctional vagus nerve. Every day more and more patients are presenting to my clinic with signs and symptoms that their vagus nerve may not be functioning well. Some of the symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction include:

  • Digestive symptoms particularly nausea, heart burn or reflux, irritable bowel symptoms like pain, bloating, cramping, irregular bowel movements, diarrhoea, urgency or constipation

  • Butterflies and gurgling and rumbling in the stomach especially when anxious or stressed

  • Stomach pain after intensive exercise like running

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Palpitations or increased heart rate

  • Weight loss or gain

  • Headaches or tingling or numbness in hands and feet

  • Fatigue or energy fluctuations

  • Dizziness or light-headedness

Fortunately there are a number of things you can do to reset and strengthen your vagus nerve. Use these vagus nerve exercises to strengthen yours.

  1. Gargle: Drink several glasses of water per day and vigorously gargle each sip until you finish the glass. You should gargle long enough and deep enough to make it challenging. It will not work unless it challenging. Do this exercise for several weeks to help strengthen the vagal pathways.

  2. Breathing: Alternate nostril or yogic breathing is another great way to tone our vagus system and relax our nervous system. This involves pinching one nostril and taking a breath in the open nostril then block off the open nostril and breathe out of the alternate nostril. Repeat this at least 12 times and do twice daily if possible.

  3. Singing: Sing as loudly as you can whenever you have the opportunity. Singing along to your favourite song will also stimulate your feel good endorphins. Laughter is also a good way to reset your vagus nerve.

  4. Stimulate your gag reflex. Lay a tongue depressor on the back of your tongue and push down to activate a gag reflex. You can also use a tongue scraper that you place at the back of your throat and scrape your tongue to stimulate your gag reflex. Gag reflexes are like doing push-ups for the vagus while gargling, laughing and singing loudly are like doing sprints. You need to perform this several times a day for several weeks to produce change.

  5. Yoga, Tai chi, walking especially spending time outside in nature are another good way to reset your vagus nerve.

Excessive physical, mental or emotional stress, lack of exercise, poor diet and excessive intake of substances like caffeine, drugs and alcohol may all have a negative effect on your vagus nerve. Supplements like probiotics, magnesium, B vitamins, fish oil and herbal tonics which improve brain function and circulation may also assist to improve vagal tone. Some of my favourites include saffron, ginkgo, gotu kola, rosemary, rhodiola, schisandra, withania and brahmi. These herbs are best used in combination so for a personalised prescription to tone your vagus nerve consult a qualified herbalist like myself.