The Vagus Nerve: What It Is and Why You Might Need to Calm It Down

Systems need good command centers to be successful. The human nervous system is no different.

Comprised of over 100 billion nerves, the human nervous system relays information from the brain to the body and back. Its critically important command center, which facilitates bidirectional communication between the body and brain, is called the vagus nerve. Yet most of us have never even heard of it. 

So what is the vagus nerve, and how does it affect digestion and gut health?

 The Wandering Nerve 

Vaga in Latin means ”to wander.” ​The longest of 12 cranial nerves, the vagus nerve starts in the brain stem and travels down the neck and throughout the body. Its branching nerve fibers touch almost every major organ, including the heart, lungs, spleen, liver, kidneys, and small and large intestines. 

This wandering nerve also controls several bodily functions, including:

  • Breathing
  • Swallowing
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Circulation
  • Digestion
  • Mood 
  • Immune response

A Direct Connection to the Gut

The vagus nerve is a vital component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the body's rest-and-digest response. One of the essential functions of the vagus nerve is modulating the activity of the enteric nervous system (ENS) – a complex network of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract, which operates somewhat independently but is influenced by the central nervous system. 

The vagus nerve acts as a conduit between the ENS and the brain, transmitting signals and information. In fact, 20% of the vagus nerve fibers communicate to the organs in the gut, while an astounding 80% communicate back to the brain. This bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut allows for constant communication and coordination. It’s easy to see why it's often called the "second brain." 

Research suggests that the vagus nerve plays a critical role in maintaining gut homeostasis and promoting gut health. It helps regulate the secretion of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile – ensuring proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Additionally, the vagus nerve influences the contraction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles, promoting regular bowel movements and preventing constipation.

Beyond digestion, the vagus nerve is involved in modulating inflammation in the gut. It can release anti-inflammatory signals, helping to regulate the immune response and reduce gut irritation. This connection between the vagus nerve and gut health highlights the significance of the gut-brain axis in various gastrointestinal conditions – some of which can be quite serious.

 Calming An Irritated Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve significantly impacts a wide range of bodily functions. But this nerve can become damaged when we experience a prolonged period of physical or mental stress. Surgery, past infections, or dysbiosis can also contribute to a dysregulated vagus nerve. 

Symptoms of a dysregulated vagus nerve include:

  • Gastrointestinal issues – abdominal pain and bloating
  • Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD)
  • Decreased digestion and nutritional deficiencies
  • Difficulty swallowing or loss of gag reflex
  • Changes to heart rate and blood pressure 
  • Insulin dysregulation
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Hoarseness, wheezing, or loss of voice
  • Mood disorders – depression and anxiety 
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog

When the vagus nerve is not working optimally, your body can lose its ability to switch to the rest-and-digest response. This may be referred to as a dysregulated vagus nerve or vagus nerve dysfunction.

Stimulating the vagus nerve has gained attention as a potential therapeutic approach for certain gut-related conditions. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), a technique where an implanted device is used to stimulate the vagus nerve in your neck, has shown promise in reducing inflammation and improving various gastrointestinal and mental issues, including depression and anxiety, which often coexist with gut disorders. 

10 Easy Ways to Shift Back into Balance  

You can also stimulate your vagus nerve with techniques and practices that are easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Here are 10 to try: 

  • Breathing – Deep, slow breathing can promote a relaxed state and get you into a parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” state.
  • Meditation – Focus on slowing your breath and clearing your mind. Or practice a 5-10 minute guided meditation.
  • Exercise – Walk, jog, swim, ride your bike, take up yoga or tai chi – find ways to move your body that you enjoy and leave you feeling energized. 
  • Singing, chanting, humming – This activates the vocal cords and muscles at the back of your throat, which stimulates the vagus nerve.
  • Laughing – Experiencing positive emotions and moments of joy will improve vagus nerve function. 
  • Cold water therapy – Place a cold compress on the back of your neck or on your chest for several seconds to up to 15 minutes at a time. Or, end your shower with 40-60 seconds of cold water.
  • Gargling – Gargle loudly with cold water for 30 seconds every morning to activate your vocal cords.
  • Eat a balanced diet – Fill your plate with whole foods rich in probiotics (natto, kimchi, organic miso) and omega-3s (wild-caught salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, avocados). Don’t forget to include fiber-rich foods, too. They feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which nurture a healthy microbiome and vagus nerve. 
  • Probiotics and other supplements – Supplementing with probiotics can play an important role in the bidirectional communication between the gut and brain. Research shows that some probiotic supplements can improve vagus nerve tone. Glycine and ginger have also been shown to support vagus nerve health.  
  • Fasting – When you fast for an extended period, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active, increasing your heart rate variability (HRV). People with an increased HRV are typically more resilient to stress – and less stress is associated with a healthy vagus nerve. 

The vagus nerve plays an essential role in communicating between your brain, gut, and other vital systems in the body. This wandering nerve may not be so well-known, but as your “second brain,” it has a big impact on how your body functions. With a few simple adjustments to your daily routine, you can give your vagus nerve the care and attention it deserves.

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