Nutrition and Lifestyle

The Gut-Brain axis – How to heal the Vagus Nerve.

March 19, 2019

New research is emerging on the importance of the gut microbiota and its link to many physical and neurological disorders.

Skin conditions, leaky gut, chronic inflammation, food sensitivities, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety and to the extreme, increased chances of heart disease and cancer have been linked to a bad gut biome.

Research has linked the vagus nerve as the bidirectional communication highway between our gut and our brains. They have linked disorders in each area where the opposite end is suffering. These bi-directional communications regulate neural, hormonal and immunological levels.

What is the Vagus nerve?

The Latin translation for the vagus nerve is the “wandering nerve” for its far reaches into the body. It is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) physically starting from the brainstem and splits off into two branches that flow down into the lowest parts of your abdomen. Its branches connect to your heart, lungs, liver, mouth, blood vessels and brain as well as having a strong connection to the gut.

It is made up of thousands of fibers, 80% of which are sensory. This is what enables the vital communication system between the organs and the brain.

The vagus nerve has also been connected to other complex systems axis in the body. The endocrine HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal), immune system (cytokine and chemokines).

Why is the vagus nerve so important?

The most notable function of the vagus nerve is its role in the autonomic nervous system and how this influences the health and function of the gut. The communication occurs on each side of the highway, from the gut microbiota to the brain and from the brain to the gut microbiota.

Gut microbiota to the brain:

  • The production, expression, and turnover of neurotransmitters
  • Protection of intestinal barrier and tight junction integrity
  • Modulation of enteric sensory afferents
  • Bacterial metabolism
  • Mucosal immune regulation

Brain to the gut microbiota:

  • Alteration in mucus and bio-film production
  • Alteration in motility
  • Alteration of intestinal permeability
  • Alteration in immune function

The dysfunction of any of these processes has the potential to cause mild discomfort to serious diseases. For me personally, an extended period of stress and surgery with copious amounts of antibiotics had my gut in bad shape. This resulted in bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), compromised intestinal lining and eventually leaky gut (intestinal permeability). Everything is connected.

Vagus functionality is related to its Tone

Vagal tone refers to the level of function of the vagus nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system. Scientists have also linked vagal tone with heart rate variability. ts been long known that a high heart rate variability is linked with overall good health. A good tone is linked with a high heart rate variability. A low tone is linked with low heart rate variability.

Symptoms of Vagus nerve dysfunction

  • Gastrointestinal dysfunctions
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Fatigue, brain fog, fibromyalgia
  • Sleep dysfunction
  • Delayed gastric emptying
  • GERD
  • Food sensitivities/ Allergies
  • B12 deficiency (inhibited intrinsic factor)
  • Depression
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Difficulty losing weight

How can we improve our vagal tone?

The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest. Making sure that you are living out of a calm and present space is a great way to improve your vagal tone.

Here are some easy ways to improve the tone of your vagus nerve:

  • Integrate a whole foods diet approach to meals. More real food and less processed food.
  • Deep breathing starting in your diaphragm, long exhales
  • Cold water on the face/ cold showers.
  • Intermittent fasting.
  • Chew slowly
  • Eat in a relaxed state
  • Acupuncture
  • Yawning
  • Gargling
  • Laughter
  • Meditation (mindfulness)

Benefits of good Vagal Tone:

  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Increased stomach acid, gastric juice secretion, and motility
  • Improved sleep
  • Histamine modulation
  • Reduces systemic inflammation
  • Better response to food satiety
  • Reduced food cravings
  • Improved blood sugar balance
  • Reduces stress-related conditions (Skin conditions, headaches, migraines, asthma, eczema)

“Always laugh when you can, it is cheap medicine.” 

― Lord Byron

The gut-brain link – getting to the root cause

The above methods are a great way to increase your vagal tone and reap health benefits but one does have to explore the root cause of a weak vagal tone, either in the gut or in the brain.

As I mentioned earlier there is a bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain. Disorder in either of those can influence the other which in turn comes back to even further put the other out of balance. A cycle of negative influence that keeps putting you in a state of dysbiosis.

Therefore, the best plan of action would be to heal the gut and gain control of the mind.

Heal the gut

The gut microbiome is an incredibly complex place and its role in our health and diseases are only now coming to light. Scientists are finally delving deep into the gut microbiome and its profound effects on people’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

Healing the gut is a step by step process. When I initially started having symptoms of my leaky gut, I was all over the internet figuring out what to do from detoxes to probiotics and I self-medicated for years.

After seeing a functional doctor and following the steps to heal my gut, I made leaps and bounds in my recovery.

Identify the issue – After years of misdiagnosis I finally went to a functional doctor and he delved deep into my past and present. He analyzed all my symptoms and directed me to various tests. Through this, he identified the problem, food sensitivities, and deficiencies. This was the basis for my treatment plan.

Eliminate toxins – This would be the general culprits such as alcohol, sugar and processed foods. Your diagnosis could have other triggers and causes of inflammation. For me it was gluten, soy and sesame as the biggest triggers, get tested and find yours.

Restore vitamins and minerals to support the immune function – A fresh, varied whole foods diet is the best way to nourish the body. The doctor may also prescribe supplements when there are serious deficiencies.

Support the rebuilding of the gastrointestinal lining. – I used Coloperm and it has worked wonderfully. Your doctor can provide you with the best product in relation to your situation.

Restore and balance – Clear the bad guys, create a favorable environment and introduce the good guys.

NOTE: Do not supplement with random probiotics. Get tested to determine your current gut ecology and restore balance with what you are lacking. By taking general probiotics you can do more harm than good when your gut biome is already under stress.

Food sources of probiotics are a safer way to bring balance – kefir, kombucha, all natural sugar-free yogurt and fermented vegetables are great natural sources of beneficial bacteria.

Observe the mind. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system.

The mind is a powerful part of our being and has so much more influence than people give credit. We hear about people who have healed themselves through the power of thought or stories of rags to unimaginable success and their advice is often the same, unwavering focus.

Learn to observe your mind when you are in a state of stress. Choose rather to be engaged in the sympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This key to healing your gut and toning your vagus nerve.

Strategies to improve stress management

  • Respond rather than react.
  • Set boundaries for what’s important in YOUR life.
  • Acknowledge stress and deal with it, don’t deny it’s there.
  • Journal conflicts, resistances, anxieties, and problems and allow for solutions to flow through writing.
  • Sleep enough – 6-8 hours depending on your lifestyle
  • Healthy communication with people that you care about.
  • Allow people to support you, be open about your stress.
  • Healthy diet.
  • Exercise.
  • Acknowledge rumination.
  • Get creative
  • Explore your interests and hobbies.

The more scientists look into the gut-brain axis and the connection of the vagus nerve to this system, the more it’s coming to light that we can heal many common ailments and chronic conditions. Making simple changes in our lives and sourcing the root cause of diseases to live happier fuller lives.

Head over to my Health Resources page for some great books on gut health and healing the body


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  • Reply Leah O'Shea February 25, 2020 at 1:39 am

    Thank you Liezl, great article with so many actions that are easy to take.

    • Reply Liezl March 22, 2020 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks Leah!

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