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Improving Digestion & Immunity through the Vagus Nerve

How does your nervous system affects your digestion and immunity?

You’ve likely heard the terms “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”, referring to the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system, respectively. Both are part of the autonomic nervous system and detect and categorize the threats we experience in our environment.

In a sympathetic state, blood gets shunted to our heart and lungs, digestion shuts down, and our arteries constrict so we can run away from the perceived threat or fight a chronic infection or injury. In a parasympathetic (relaxed) state, blood goes to our digestive system so we more efficiently digest and absorb the nutrients we’re eating and we feel relaxed enough to have a bowel movement.

Why is it important?

Both the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system use the vagus nerve to communicate with our intestinal immune system and control inflammation. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, running from our head to our abdomen, and is responsible for heart rate, digestion, and breathing rate among other things. When the delicate balance of the immune system is disrupted, chaos can result (via inflammatory cytokines), ranging from mild gut distress to irritable bowel disease.

Symptoms of decreased parasympathetic function may include:
– Constipation

– Nausea

– Urinary retention

– Erectile dysfunction

What to do about it?

Our culture promotes rushing around and doing more, keeping our stress levels, adrenaline, and cortisol high and our body in a sympathetic state. In these current times, we can choose to make use of the extra time at home to consciously put our bodies in a relaxed parasympathetic state more regularly.

My goal in working with patients is to decrease the time it takes to shift from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state and help their bodies realize they aren’t running for their lives. Once we relax, cortisol and adrenaline decrease and blood returns to our stomach and intestines, allowing for better digestion and nutrient absorption, along with decreasing inflammatory cytokines in our intestinal immune system.

An excellent way to prime the nervous system and improve the efficiency of switching from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state is to tone the vagus nerve with daily at-home exercises.

Simple Ways to Instantly Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve:
– Gargling with water for 30-60 seconds
– Loud singing
– Humming
– Gentle neck massaging
– Deep breathing into your diaphragm so your belly rises
– Ending showers with a cold rinse for 30-60 seconds
– Bathing in neutral water (neither hot nor cold to the touch)
– Resting, relaxing, convalescing

Plus, when you are in a relaxed parasympathetic state, your brain learns more!

In health,
Dr. Coleman

Citation: Goverse G, Stakenborg M, Matteoli G. The intestinal cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. J Physiol. 2016;594(20):5771-5780. doi:10.1113/JP271537 Read full article.