The What, Why and How of the Vagus Nerve

Updated: Jan 17

What is the Vagus Nerve? The Vagus nerve is ​the longest of the cranial nerves and it extends from your brain to your abdomen by way of most major organs. The Vagus Nerve communicates between the gut - brain axis and is the ​most important nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is known to direct “rest and digest” function of the body.​ You can imagine why the strength and health of this nerve can have such a profound effect on the body as a whole.

Why strengthen the Vagus? ​Just like your muscles, neurons need a good workout to stay healthy and strong. ​Because the Vagus nerve travels through most of our organs, it is suggested that strengthening the nerve may improve gut function, lower heart rate, improve heart rate variability, improve mood and immune function. When you stimulate the Vagus Nerve, it enhances gut motility by activating the migrating motor complexes (MMC). The MMC is the peristaltic waves that brushes the gut free of excess debris and bacteria.

How to strengthen the Vagus? ​By ​contracting​ t​he muscles located at the back of the throat, you can increase vagal tone and strengthen your gut-brain connection. Here are some techniques to try at home:

  • Gargle:​ Gargle vigorously, ideally until your eyes tear; work up to 2-3x/day.

  • Sing/Chant/Laugh loudly: ​If you are alone at home or in the car, spend some time singing/chanting/laughing as loudly as you can.

  • Gag Reflex:​ Using a tongue depressor, gently press on the back of your tongue to make yourself gag- careful not to injure the back of your throat. Work up to 2-3x/ day, ideally until your eyes tear. According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, a leading expert on Vagal nerve strengthening, gagging is similar to strength training, whereas gargling and singing are like a cardio workout for the Vagus nerve. So remember to “cross-train” to get the best results.

Other supportive measures:

  • Dietary support: ​anti-inflammatory whole foods diet, intermittent fasting, mindful eating

  • Supplement support: ​probiotics, fish oil

  • Body and breath work: ​yoga, meditation, massage, acupuncture, 4-7-8 breathing (4 seconds in, 7 seconds hold, 8 seconds out. Repeat x 3-4 breaths). For calming down in the moment: 4-7-8 breathing; 4 sec in, 7 sec hold, 8 sec out. Repeat x 3-4 breaths. (For mindful maintenance: 5-5-5 breathing; 5 sec in, 5 sec hold, 5 sec out. Repeat throughout the day).

Katie Morra MS, RD, LDN, IFMCP is an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner and Registered Dietitian specializing in gut health, the microbiome, and nutrition. Her functional medicine nutrition practice is based in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

Katie focuses on the root causes of inflammation, autoimmune disease, irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, candida overgrowth, food sensitivities and leaky gut, amongst other chronic disease states.​

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