Let’s face it, stress is just part of the human experience. Sometimes though, it can feel like being chronically stressed out is just as unavoidable as stressful situations themselves. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a switch you could activate to help you stay relaxed?
Science has uncovered just such a switch—and (yay!) we all already have one! It’s called the vagus nerve, and like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz, it’s been with us all along. As Dorothy learned, the trick is learning how to activate your power and in this case, the gut-brain connection holds a major key.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
Your amazing gut handles so much more than just digestion. Your digestive tract is also lined with millions of neurons that comprise your enteric nervous system—aka your “second brain.”
Even though your two “brains” aren’t close neighbors, they must work together in order to regulate all your bodily functions, including mood. Your brain and gut stay in constant communication along the gut-brain axis via the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve (technically a pair of nerves) runs from the base of the brain to the colon, and branches out to most major organs. Because it communicates with the entire body, the vagus nerve is one of the most important players in the mind-body connection—and it’s the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response.1 Stimulating vagus nerve function gives your brain the message that it’s safe to relax and focus on resting and digesting.
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You might think your brain does the bulk of the talking along the vagus nerve, but the exact opposite is true. In fact, 80% to 90% of this communication is from the gut to the brain—meaning gut balance has a significant influence on moods and perceptions.2
The Gut Microbiome and Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Instead of speaking words, the vagus nerve uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate, many of which signal the brain to feel relaxed and happy. And it turns out a large portion of these feel-good chemicals—including calming GABA, serotonin and dopamine for happiness, and oxytocin for loving bonds—are manufactured by the friendly bacteria in your gut.3,4,5,6 Your beneficial gut microbes also discourage production of the stress hormone cortisol.
When gut flora are healthy and diverse, you’ll have just the right gut microbes to keep producing calm, happy, focused neurotransmitters.7 But if your microbiome becomes depleted, it may not be able to manufacture enough of the chemicals that activate your vagus nerve for an ideal parasympathetic nervous system response. That’s why caring for your gut is one of the best things you can do to keep you sailing gracefully through even the stickiest situations.
Food For Peaceful Thoughts
Gut care begins with what you put into your gut, so make sure you’re getting lots of these gut-healthy goodies:
• Fiber-rich foods: Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains contain prebiotic fiber, which nourishes your microbial allies.
• Fermented/cultured foods: Foods like kefir, kimchi, and yogurt contain friendly microbes that will join your microbial community.
• Omega-3 fats: Found in oily fish, chia, flax, algae, hemp, and walnuts, omega-3 fatty acids support a diverse and robust microbiome.8
• Polyphenols: These plant chemicals found in green tea, coffee, chocolate, and olive oil also keep good flora thriving.
It’s challenging to nurture the gut-brain axis through diet alone, though. For more intensive gut and vagus nerve support consider supplementing with:
• Suntheanine®: The amino acid L-theanine supports production of calming GABA. Drinking lots (and lots!) of green tea is one way to get L-theanine, but convenient Suntheanine® supplements provide the purest, most concentrated L-theanine available.
• Probiotics: Replenishing your gut with a high quality, time-released probiotic formula like GBX-Focus supports the gut-brain connection and a healthy microbiome to keep a steady stream of good news flowing up the vagus nerve.
• Prebiotics: Sprinkling some organic Prebiotic Powder into smoothies and soft foods helps ensure that your beneficial microbes stay well fed.
A Quick Vagus Nerve Hack
But what if you’re super stressed right now? Thankfully there’s a way to stimulate your vagus nerve on demand, and it’s as simple as slowing the breath. Your heart and lungs are among the many places the vagus nerve meanders—so when you inhale, the lungs send information about your breath to your brain and then when you exhale, the brain sends info back down the vagus nerve to either speed up or slow down the heart. Rapid breathing signals danger, fueling the stress response. But long, slow exhalations result in a message of safety, triggering the relaxation response.
If you’re feeling anxious, try breathing in deeply for a count of five and then exhaling for a count of five. Your vagus nerve will follow your lead and you should start feeling calmer after just a few minutes of this technique.
The vagus nerve is your secret weapon for serenity in a hectic world—and maintaining a balanced gut keeps it sending a lifetime of good vibes. And, just remember, when you need emergency vagus nerve rescue, relief may be as close your next breath!
1. Bonaz, B., Bazin, T., & Pellissier, S. (2018). The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00049
2. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
3. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Kawai, M., Kikuchi-Hayakawa, H., Suda, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota preserves the diversity of the gut microbiota and relieves abdominal dysfunction in healthy medical students exposed to academic stress. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 82(12), 3649-3658. doi:10.1128/aem.04134-15
4. Bravo, J. A., Forsythe, P., Chew, M. V., Escaravage, E., Savignac, H. M., Dinan, T. G., . . . Cryan, J. F. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 16050-16055.
5. Poutahidis, T., Kearney, S. M., Levkovich, T., Qi, P., Varian, B. J., Lakritz, J. R., . . . Erdman, S. E. (2013). Microbial Symbionts Accelerate Wound Healing via the Neuropeptide Hormone Oxytocin. PLoS ONE, 8(10).6. Yano, J., Yu, K., Donaldson, G., Shastri, G., Ann, P., Ma, L., … Hsiao, E. (2015). Indigenous Bacteria from the Gut Microbiota Regulate Host Serotonin Biosynthesis. Cell, 163(1), 258. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.09.017
7. Forsythe, P., Bienenstock, J., & Kunze, W. A. (2014). Vagal Pathways for Microbiome-Brain-Gut Axis Communication. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 115-133. doi:10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_58.8. Menni, C., Zierer, J., Pallister, T., Jackson, M. A., Long, T., Mohney, R. P., … Valdes, A. M. (2017). Omega-3 fatty acids correlate with gut microbiome diversity and production of N-carbamylglutamate in middle aged and elderly women. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-10382-2
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.