7 Lifestyle Habits to Support The Gut-Brain Axis 

By Jamie Bussin and Dr. Barb Woegerer ND

Frequently my stomach aches (by which I really mean abdominal discomfort) are accompanied by headaches and vice versa. I am sure that I’m not alone. There is a lot of recent study into the “gut-brain” axis and the function of the vagus nerve. I recently interviewed Dr. Barb Woegerer ND to explain how stress and our gut microbiome impact our health on Episode #303  of the talk show/podcast. This is an encapsulation of that discussion.

The vagus nerve, otherwise known as the 10th cranial nerve and is sometimes referred to as the “wandering nerve” essentially operates as our body’s superhighway. It carries information between our brain and our internal organs and it controls our responses in times of rest and relaxation. It comes out of the brainstem and it goes down and it meanders kind of all the way down to the anal area of our bodies. It innervates numerous organs and structures such as the heart, the digestive system, the respiratory system, the immune system, the endocrine system and, of course, the gut-brain axis.

Barb explains, “Some nerves only have motor functions, some have sensory and some such as the vagus nerve, have both.” The sensory branch of the vagus nerve carries a signal from our body’s organ to the brain, and so it serves as a conduit for information that’s going to be related to certain sensations such as pain, temperature, touch, etc. An example would be if you feel like you have a stomach ache or you experience a sensation of fullness. The motor branch of the vagus nerve carries signals from the brain to the organs. It controls the organs’ functions. It regulates a wide range of bodily processes, everything from heart rate, digestion and breathing to the release of hormones.  


What is “Vagal Tone”?

Vagal tone refers to the strength and efficiency of the vagus nerve activity in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. When vagal tone is high, then the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest response) is functioning effectively to calm the body like reduce stress, slow the heart rate and promote relaxation. When vagal tone is low it can lead to more of an overactive sympathetic (fight or flight) response. 


What Impacts Vagal Tone?

There are many factors which influence the function of the vagus nervous system. Chronic stress is going to dysregulate the autonomic nervous system which includes the vagus nerve. Inflammation and chronic illness will also impair the function of the vagus nerve. According to Barb, even our mood can impair and alter the vagal tone as we move from the parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode into sympathetic (fight or flight) mode. 

Poor sleep can also cause reduced vagal tone. The less sleep you get, the worse the impact on vagal tone. But sleep quality is relevant too. If you’re constantly waking up through the night, it is disruptive and will reduce vagal tone. The efficiency and the responsiveness of the vagus nerve will also decrease as we age. Common medications such as beta blockers and antibiotics, which affect both heart rate and blood pressure impact vagal nerve function.  The environment in our gut microbiome is directly tied to vagus nerve health.


How do we improve our Vagal Tone?

The good news is that it’s definitely possible to enhance and strengthen your vagal tone. And most of the things that you can do to strengthen that vagal tone  are  through these 7 lifestyle practices.

According to Barb you can improve vagal tone through deep breathing. “….that breath into the belly, focusing on a really long exhalation. This is going to activate that relaxation response and stimulate the vagus nerve.”

Mindfulness and meditation can help too as they  allow relaxation to happen. The vagus nerve needs that relaxation response in order to be able to get that vagal tone to be increased. 

Engaging in physical activity is also important. Aerobic exercises such as yoga and tai chi  can stimulate the vagus nerve and enhance function. The research shows that 30 minutes of exercise is impactful. 

Cold exposure, such as cold showers, ice bath, splashing cold water on your face, will also activate that vagus nerve. According to Barb, “cold exposure is a mini stressor that the body actually responds to really well and is a really good way of improving vagal tone. And the higher your vagal tone, the more you’re able to do ice baths in colder water and stay in for longer periods of time.” Barb recommends starting slowly. Then you can gradually increase duration over time. 

Laughter is a powerful tool to activate the vagus nerve. Watching funny videos or engaging in activities that make you laugh can all help. Barb says, “We don’t laugh enough in society. We tend to be very stern and there’s a lot of stressors in our lives. And so we forget that laughter is actually a really good way of enhancing that vagus nerve. But you really have to have a good belly laugh.. You can’t just smirk, that’s not going to cut it.”

Intermittent fasting is another way we can enhance the vagus nerve. This is because we’re restricting our eating window, which  in turn causes a little minor stressor on the body. Intermittent fasting allows your digestive system to rest which also will improve your vagal tone. 

Vocal exercises such as singing, chanting, and humming stimulate the muscles in the back of the throat which are connected to the vagus nerve. Barb even recommends gargling as another way of stimulating throat muscles, but she cautions; “When you’re doing these, for instance, the gargling, you really want to be almost gargling to the point where your eyes are watering.” …Now, I’m not sure I’m prepared to gargle to the point of eye watering, but in the name of vagal tone, perhaps you will.