What do digestive problems and the vagus nerve have to do with each other? Do you have digestive complaints? Do you feel like food just goes right through you? Do you feel like your meal sits like a rock in your stomach? Are gas and bloating a regular part of your life? Are you also running a hundred miles an hour, in 14 different directions? Do you feel like you’re a firefighter, constantly putting out fires?
As you’ve probably come to realize, your digestive symptoms are related to in part or in full, to poorly metabolized stress.
I have lost track of the number of patients who’ve come in having experienced years, even decades of digestive complaints and upon a thorough intake including their history, we’re able to identify a particular life event or life circumstances that presented itself just before the onset of their digestive troubles.
A 2018 paper published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience demonstrated that stress inhibits the vagus nerve and is strongly linked to digestive disorders ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to inflammatory bowel syndrome like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Our vagus nerve is the information conductor of a number of involuntary activities like digestion, heart rate and respiration.
It acts as a highway between our digestive tract and our brain. If it’s impaired, the relaxation response which is imperative for optimal digestion doesn’t turn on.
When hydrochloric acid isn’t produced adequately in the stomach and the peristaltic movements are not in rhythm, everything downstream is compromised and maldigestion and digestive irritation set in.
And when I say stress, this doesn’t have to just be your boss yelling at you or cramming for a final exam, stress can also come in the form of dietary choices like consuming an abundance of flour and sugar laden foods.
Think crackers, chips, candy, pastries, pasta, white rice, white bread. The journal of Nature published research in May of 2021 demonstrating that a high processed carbohydrate diet impaired vagus nerve function.
What is the first thing people usually reach for when under stress? It’s usually the dopamine/rewarding spiking foods that are high in sugar and flour.
This is rough because if digestion is impaired by stress and then we respond with refined, convenience foods, we end up in a state of moving fast while malnourished, which further lowers our capacity for optimal vagus nerve function.
So, is there hope? Of course.
For starters, it will require us to evaluate our life and the circumstances that we currently come up against that increase our symptoms.
1. Evaluate life circumstances.
People so often want to overlook this part and instead want to rely on a supplement to take away all their symptoms.
Probiotics, Digest aids or enzymes instead have their place and can help promote healing of the gut but if we don’t get real with the fears, worries, stressors, poor food choices behind the digestive distress, we are going to be trying to put out a house fire with a super soaker, when we could have the help of our local fire department.
2. Consider your breathing.
Are you nasal breathing? If so, great. If not, lets get to it.
Make a point to slow your breathing rate. Our diaphragm contracts 25,000 times per day enabling us to pull air and push air out. Give this a go on your way to work, while waiting in line at the grocery store, at lunch time.
If we can slow this process down, make it quiet and subtle, we start a rest-relax response into our being which directly affects our vagus nerve. Improving its signals to our stomach, allowing it to create the digestive juices necessary to fully breakdown our meals.
For nasal breathing tips and how-to’s, check out this post.
3. Get out in nature and move your body.
If you don’t already have a movement routine, simply going outside and walking in your yard for 5 minutes would be outstanding.
Natural light, coupled with movement is the most under prescribed natural anxiolytic.
4. Consider using probiotics.
Specifically, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species as they have a positive stress lowering effect on vagus nerve activity.
5. Consider utilizing adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha.
Adaptogenic herbs can help modulate your stress response. You can also utilize direct gastric nervous system relaxing and gut lining healing herbs like chamomile, licorice extract, slippery elm, marshmallow root, or green kiwifruit to name few.
Just remember using probiotics and herbal support while they can be helpful, will not be as effective without putting in the work related to lifestyle adjustment or life perspective adjustment.
How have you improved your digestive health? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Breit Sigrid, Kupferberg Aleksandra, Rogler Gerhard, Hasler Gregor. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front. Psychiatry, 13 March 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Loper, H., Leinen, M., Bassoff, L. et al. Both high fat and high carbohydrate diets impair vagus nerve signaling of satiety. Sci Rep 11, 10394 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89465-0