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Vagus Nerve Exercises For Digestion

You’ve probably heard lots of amazing things about your vagus nerve, and better gut health is high on the list of benefits.

But how do you actually get these benefits? What exercises can you do to strengthen your vagus nerve for better digestion?

You are in the right place. In this article I explain exactly how the vagus nerve works with your digestive system. You will learn some vagus nerve exercises that can improve digestion.

Let’s get started.

What is the vagus nerve anyway?

The vagus nerve is one of the twelve paired cranial nerves. It begins in the brain and connects with the face, neck and torso. It is the 10th cranial nerve.

The other cranial nerves affect organs and muscles right in the head, neck or shoulder areas. The vagus nerve, on the other hand, travels all the way down to your gut. In fact, the word vagus comes from the Latin word for wandering.

This nerve wanders through your neck, around your lungs and your heart, and wraps through your entire digestive system. It is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.

You may have heard about vagal tone. This is just referring to the strength and resilience of your vagus nerve. Toning your vagus nerve is just like toning your muscles in your body.

How does the vagus nerve affect digestion?

Since your vagus nerve connects your brain and your gut, messages can travel back and forth along this pathway. Interestingly, most of that messaging is coming from your gut and running towards your brain (1). This is how your body regulates hormones and reactions based upon what you are putting into your stomach.

When you eat foods containing fats and proteins, a hormone called cholecystokinin sends messages from your gastrointestinal tract to your brain. The brain then tells your gallbladder and pancreas to release bile and digestive enzymes (2).  

Your vagus nerve also sends messages to your brain from the stretch receptors in your stomach, alerting the brain to the fact that food has arrived (1).

Hormones that regulate appetite, energy balance and control of your blood glucose also travel along the vagus nerve to let the brain know what is going on in the gut (1).

Can the vagus nerve cause gas and bloating?

If your vagus nerve is not working properly, you might have gas and bloating. Here is the reason why. It all has to do with the way your central nervous system interacts with your digestion.

You may have heard that it is super important to be in a rest and digest state while you are eating a meal. We also call this the parasympathetic state. It is the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight.

In a fight or flight state, digestion is not a priority. Your body takes energy away from your digestive system and sends it to your large muscles so that you can fight off the threat. In a rest and digest state your body is able to send energy to your gut to digest foods.

What does this have to do with the vagus nerve? The fibers that make up this nerve are 75% parasympathetic. When your vagus nerve is activated, you are in a rest and digest, or parasympathetic, state.

The Role Of Gut Bacteria

Now let’s talk about gut bacteria. Most gas and bloating comes from these little critters living in your upper digestive tract, where they don’t really belong. Bacteria thrive in your small intestine when there is plenty of undigested food there for them to eat.

If you are not breaking down foods and absorbing the nutrients, they become food for gut bacteria. As the bacteria consume those foods, they produce gasses. 

Your vagus nerve sends the messages that kick off production of bile and digestive enzymes. Now you are able to break down and absorb nutrients.

Now undigested carbohydrates, proteins and fats don’t hang around in your gut, feed your gut bacteria, and create gas and bloating.

How does the vagus nerve affect bowel movements?

The vagus nerve energizes the muscles in your digestive system. These are the muscles that move food through your intestines and out the other end.

Poor muscle movement (motility) in your gut creates constipation. Food just isn’t moving along the way it should be.

Constipation happens for many different reasons. Toning up your vagus nerve is one way to help. Read about more ways to get your gut moving.  

What are some vagus nerve exercises for digestion?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation With A Device

We are learning that many different health conditions are linked to a dysfunctional vagus nerve. As a result, vagus nerve stimulation is becoming a recognized treatment. Several devices are on the market that can directly stimulate your vagus nerve. 

Vagus nerve stimulators are approved for conditions like depression, epilepsy and cluster headaches. One type of device is implanted under your skin. Wires connect to your vagus nerve and stimulate it electronically.

Other non-invasive vagus nerve stimulators are handheld. You apply these directly to the skin in the area of the vagus nerve, which is on your neck just below the ear. You need a prescription to get a vagus stimulator, so this is a conversation to have with your doctor.

Even if you can’t get a prescription for a device, there are plenty of other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve easily, on your own, and in the comfort of your home.

Breathwork

Deep breathing, and releasing the air from your lungs slowly, can stimulate and tone your vagus nerve. When your lungs expand to fill with air, parasympathetic nerve receptors deep in your lung are stimulated (3).  

You can try methods like 4-6-6 breathing, where you breathe in to a count of four, hold it for six counts, and then breathe out for six counts. There are many variations on this rhythm, as well as apps that will walk you through the breathing process and even give you reminders during the day.

Taking a few deep breaths just before you eat can help to shift you into a parasympathetic state. However it is even better to practice your breathwork throughout the day, and keep your stress levels low.

Gargling, Chanting, Humming, Singing

Gargling, chanting, humming and singing all vibrate the muscles at the back of your throat. Your vagus nerve runs right through this territory. The vibrations can directly stimulate and help to tone your vagus nerve.

Pick one or more of these activities to do regularly, on a daily basis. If you rarely sing, you might notice that when you do, your throat gets a little bit sore. That’s because the muscles involved are out of practice. So with any of these exercises, you might need to start small and work your way up.

By the way, this is not just humming or singing quietly under your breath. You need to really belt out a song to get those muscles vibrating.

Laughing

Laughter has been called the best medicine, and with good reason. Laughing has a holistically positive effect on your body. It influences physical temperature, blood pressure, lung capacity, heart rate, muscles in the musculoskeletal system, and brain activity (4). 

What does this have to do with the vagus nerve? When you laugh many of your muscles contract and then relax, including your diaphragm, which sits just below your lungs and heart. Again, this is the territory of the vagus nerve as it travels down towards your digestive tract. So, laughter directly stimulates the vagus nerve.

There is a ton of research on laughter and how it can lower cortisol and help with different health conditions (5). There is even a new type of therapy called laughter yoga. Even better, spend time with people who naturally make you laugh. 

Cold water on your skin

Many people swear by the health benefits of taking a cold shower. It’s great if this cold exposure is your thing. However you can get the same effect of stimulating your vagus nerve by just splashing cold water on your face.

Applying cold water to your face stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which in turn is connected to your vagus nerve. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Even though it may feel unpleasant at the time, the sequence of changes in your nervous system end up with you being in a more relaxed state (6).  

You can splash cold water on your face, or even take a cold shower, to help calm yourself when you are stressed. You can also do this on a daily basis to help keep your vagus nerve strong.

Massage

There is a specific type of massage that stimulates the vagus nerve. Some massage therapists are trained in this method. 

But the good news is that research shows a regular soft shoulder massage is just as effective as a targeted vagus nerve massage. The research uses change in heart rate variability to measure the effect on the vagus nerve (7).  

A random neck and shoulder massage might help you relax, but regular sessions will be more beneficial for strengthening your vagus nerve. 

Spending time with safe people

Polyvagal theory is an approach to mental health developed by Stephen Porges. According to this theory, your body may find cues in social situations that are identified as a threat. This can trigger a fight, flight or freeze response (8).  

In safe social situations, your body relaxes into an active parasympathetic state where it is able to fully experience sensations and surroundings, and carry out the routine bodily functions, like digestion!

Only you know whether the people you are around are safe. This is information that your brain has learned based on all the experiences you have had so far in your life. Listen to the signals and subtle messages that you get from your body. 

Spending more time (and eating) with safe, non-triggering people can help you become more healthy and resilient.

Final Thoughts

Your vagus nerve is important for good digestion. It energizes the muscles in your digestive tract, and sends messages to your brain about what is coming into your stomach. 

There are many ways to keep your vagus nerve toned and healthy. Breathwork, gargling, singing, humming, chanting, laughter, cold therapy and massage all help to strengthen your vagus nerve. Your digestion works better when you eat with people that your nervous system recognizes as safe.

Would you like to learn some breathing techniques that can help to stimulate your vagus nerve and shift you to a Rest and Digest state? Just click on the link below.

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