What’s vagal tone have to do with your gut? Well… just about everything.
Have you ever been so anxious or nervous about something that it made you nauseous? Maybe even gave you butterflies? Or what about when you get bad news and you feel that “sinking” feeling in your gut?
We have ALL felt the impact that negative emotions like stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear can have on our bodies.
These emotions can present themselves in different physical ways, including stomach pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea to name a few. Sound familiar? There is a reason why, when you are in a stressful situation, your body can respond with those physical symptoms.
A major player in the gut-brain connection is the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
It is actually a bundle of nerves that regulates our parasympathetic nervous system, aka our rest and digest functions, such as metabolism, heart rate, and breathing.
An important job of the vagus nerve is to regulate the gut-brain axis, which is a communication pathway between our gastrointestinal (GI) tract and central nervous system (CNS). Although it is a very complex system, the key takeaway is that our emotions such as stress and anxiety can have a direct impact on our gut health, and vice versa.
During stressful times, our sympathetic functions (increased heart rate, more rapid breathing, cortisol production…) are activated while our parasympathetic functions are put on the back burner.
Decreased vagal tone, aka vagus nerve function, is a result of this response and can be measured using heart rate variability (HRV). Low vagal tone has been associated with various digestive disorders, while a higher vagal tone has been associated with better digestion and overall GI function.
You can work to increase your vagal tone to help regulate digestion, stress response, and overall gut health.
What can you start doing today for your vagal tone?
Here are some great exercises to stimulate and activate your vagus nerve which helps to increase vagal tone:
- Meditation & breathing
- Take some time to shift your focus from your thoughts to your breath, so can help bring the mind and body into a calmer state. A study published by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM), examined at the relationship between meditation and the vagal tone. The study concluded that non-focused meditation decreased sympathetic system functions and increased vagal tone. Start with two minutes of meditation and go from there.
- Humming, singing, and laughing
- The vagus nerve is connected to our vocal cords, so humming or singing alone to your favorite song, watching a funny movie, or laughing with your friends can actually help increase vagal tone by sending vibrations that stimulate the nerve. This is also the reason behind saying “om” in yoga.
- Getting regular exercise
- During exercise, vagal tone has been shown to increase significantly when compared to a resting state. Get regular exercise to improve vagus nerve activation through running, walking, strength training or interval training. Exercising even 10-20 minutes a day can be beneficial – small changes add up!
- Mindfully eating
- Mindful eating is simply shifting your attention to your food rather than distractions around you, like your phone and TV. When we eat, the brain is looking for positive external stimuli to optimize digestion. This works by signaling the release of digestive enzymes and sending more blood flow to the GI tract. Focus on the flavors and textures of the food, or how you feel throughout the meal.
Your mindset is also key in vagal tone. How can you shift your mindset?
- Recognize your thoughts
- Have you ever had a random negative thought and found yourself spiraling down the rabbit hole? We can help lessen this by practicing to recognize our thoughts. We think thousands of thoughts per day, so when one stands out just ask yourself: “is this thought helpful to me? Is it relevant? Do I really believe this thought?
- Don’t stress about the little things
- Stress can be defined as “the response of the organism to a solicitation of the challenging environment.” Short-term stress is normal and is even beneficial, as balance is usually restored in the body after a stressful situation. However, chronic stress has been correlated with poor digestion and GI function. Remember to take time for yourself to decompress, and try not to overstress about the little things – especially things you cannot control.
- Practice gratitude
- Practicing gratitude has been shown to stimulate vagus nerve function by sending signals of safety, allowing the body to relax. You can start by thinking of or writing down a few things you’re grateful for, whether big or as simple as the coffee you are drinking.
The vagus nerve has a massive impact on our thoughts, feelings, and even gut health. Addressing the vagus nerve is one way to ensure that we’re on the path to optimal health and wellness.
Do you want to get to the root of your gut health and increase your vagal tone? Work with our team of Registered Dietitians who can help customize your protocol for optimal gut health here.
Rachel Scheer is a Certified Nutritionist who received her degree from Baylor University in Nutrition Science and Dietetics. Rachel has her own private nutrition and counseling practice located in McKinney, Texas. Rachel has helped clients with a wide range of nutritional needs enhance their athletic performance, improve their physical and mental health, and make positive lifelong eating and exercise behavior changes.