Is your gut-brain axis impaired?

Restoring proper digestive function involves more than just adjusting the diet, balancing the microbes, and calming inflammation.

Many doctors overlook the fact that your brain and nervous system are in direct control of your digestion.  As well, whatever is happening in the digestive tract influences your brain.  This is called the gut-brain axis.  Do you know if yours is impaired?

Symptoms of an impaired gut-brain axis can be:

  • Difficulty digesting foods
  • Constipation or irregular bowel movements
  • Increased bloating and gas
  • Distention after meals
  • Intolerance to food types such as proteins, starches, and/or fats
  • Frequent abdominal discomfort after meals

The digestive system has its own nervous system, which we call the “enteric nervous system”.  The brain sends signals to the enteric nervous system through the vagus nerve.  The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the movement of food through your intestines, releasing digestive enzymes such as hydrochloric acid, and carrying blood to the digestive organs to promote healing and repair.

If your vagus nerve is not working properly, then your digestion will be comprimised, causing you much discomfort.  How do you know if your vagus nerve is working properly?

  • Can your doctor hear bowel sounds with his/her stethoscope?
  • Does your soft palate rise when you say “Ahhhhh”?   The soft palate is adjacent to the uvula, that little nodule of tissue that looks like a punching bag at the back of your throat.  Look in the mirror as you say “Ahhhh” and check to see if the soft palate rises.
  • Do you have a strong gag reflex?  Touch the back of your tongue or throat with a tongue depressor, spoon, or toothbrush.  You should immediately gag due to stimulating the vagus nerve.

If you answered “No” to any of these questions, your vagus nerve may not be functioning properly and it could be part of the cause of your digestive discomfort.

What can you do to tonify your vagus nerve?

  • Gargling with water:  Do this several times per day, making it a challenging exercise when you do it.
  • Sing loudly:  Although your friends or family members may not appreciate it, tell them you need to exercise your vagus nerve.
  • Gag:  Purchase a box of tongue depressors and push down on the back of your tongue to stimulate the gag reflex.  Do this at least 2-3 times per day.

You will need to do these exercises for several weeks before you see any change.

In addition, being in a parasympathetic nervous system state will tonify your vagus nerve.  This is what we call “rest and digest”, as opposed to a sympathetic nervous system state known as “fight or flight”.  Activities like meditation, breathing, yoga and just simply resting can develop the tone of your vagus nerve.

Don’t forget about the gut-brain axis!  It contributes to the health of your gut!