If you are suffering from an intestinal disorder, you are not alone. Experts estimate that between 60-70 millions Americans suffer from some form of digestive disorder. One survey suggests that 74% of Americans live with “digestive discomfort.” What exactly is going on here?
Vagus Nerve and Digestion
Your gut consists of both large and small intestines. Your gut is connected to the brain through a nerve called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body and is often called the “wanderer nerve,” as it travels from the brain to organs throughout the body. Think of it as an “information superhighway,” allowing your brain to receive important information and to deliver an appropriate response.
When you digest food, the vagus nerve senses changes in the microbiota in your intestines and sends this information to your brain. When the vagus nerve is working properly the brain sends back the right response immediately.
For example, if you eat a food that triggers intestinal inflammation, the vagus nerve detects the inflammation and notifies your brain. Hey brain. We’ve got some inflammation here. Do something! The brain then sends information back to the intestines initiating a biological process that decreases the inflammation. Like dispatching the fire department to put out a fire. Amazing right?
If your vagus nerve is weak or if you have vagus nerve damage, the signal is weak and the flow of information between your gut and brain is impeded. Imagine talking on a cellphone with poor reception. You might get some of the information but could miss something important! If the vagus nerve can’t alert the brain to inflammation the brain can’t “send the fire department.” The inflammation continues to grow or in some cases, become chronic.
When your vagus nerve is not stimulated it is said to “be low.” When low, the nerve can’t effectively foster communication between the body and the brain. This not only contributes to digestive disorders, but can also affect other parts of your body including the heart, liver, kidneys and even the tongue. A vagus nerve disorder can even contribute to high blood pressure. It is also part of the sympathetic nervous system, responsible not only for digestion but for emotional well-being.
So, how do you strengthen or tone your vagus nerve? One way is to have a physician apply electric pulses directly to the nerve. No thank you! Another proven and effective way to the tone the vagus nerve is to practice yoga or meditation.
Yoga and Meditation Can Ease the Symptoms of Digestive Disorders
An increasing number of studies are coming to the conclusion that relaxation techniques such a yoga, meditation, pranyama (yogic breathing) and other mindfulness practices help to tone the vagus nerve, restoring clear lines of communication between the brain and the gut. This is something yogis have know for thousands of years. And even better, its free!
Once the vagus nerve is strong and healthy, the symptoms from digestive disorders like IBS and Crohn’s disease improve. And that’s not all. A toned vagus nerve has been shown to help with other inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. And because it is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, it can improve the symptoms of depression, PTSD and generally promote feelings of well-being.
When it comes to the vagus nerve and digestion, practicing relaxation, meditation and healthy breathing exercises will help to maintain a healthy vagus nerve and in turn, will help to improve your digestive health. If you are experiencing gastrointestinal disorders or need help with weight loss please contact our San Diego clinic to speak with a professional.