The Brain-Vagus-Gut Connection
The connection between our guts and our brains cannot be denied. While the relationship between the gut and the brain has been known since the 19th century in terms of control of peristalsis, or motility, we have developed a greater understanding of just how important the crosstalk is between the two organs. The burgeoning field of neurogastroenterology is optimizing the application of what we do know but also working hard to further our understanding on the physical and emotional impacts of this connection. Many neurological disorders have gastrointestinal manifestations including migraines, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and dysautonomia.
The vagus nerve is the main channel of communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain and its disruption can have significant health implications. The vagus nerve is cranial nerve X and is parasympathetic in its control of the autonomic nervous system and the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS sometimes referred to as a “second brain,” contains between 300 to 600 million neurons which are responsible for the bidirectional flow of information between the ENS and the central nervous system (CNS). Together, they work to control movement of the tract, secretions, immune function for bacterium, and blood flow.
The nucleus tractus solitarius is a target of vagal afferent fibers which projects to the dorsal motor nucleus, the origin of vagal efferent fibers. This vagal pathway can influence the secretions, motility, and environment of our gastrointestinal tract leading to stagnation, overgrowth, indigestion, and more. Microbes living in the gut may have influence of the activity of our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis as well as impact astrocytic cellular activity resulting in inflammation and neurodegeneration.
Symptoms can include:
Anxiety and depression
Joint and muscle pain
There are some things that we can do on our own to control the communication between the brain and the gut, by way of the vagus nerve.
1. Eat foods rich in tryptophan. Dietary tryptophan is metabolized in the gut and may help the astrocytes control inflammation. These foods include spinach, seeds, nuts, and bananas.
2. Avoid meat and eggs. These foods contain choline which, especially when in excess, are converted to TMA oxide, a compound that has been associated with increased risk of stroke.
3. Control weight naturally. Consume a diet high in a variety of vegetables and fruits, along with nuts, seeds, and legumes. Obesity and gut inflammation can disrupt vagal activity.
4. Maintain regular bowel activity. Consume daily fiber and maintain routine sleep and exercise patterns to allow your body to eliminate on a daily rhythm.
5. Eliminate sugar from diet. Excessive sugar not only causes chronic inflammation but glycosylates cells and impair cellular feedback loops and other signaling pathways.
6. Vagus nerve stimulator. Stimulation of the vagus nerve has anti-inflammatory actions through both its afferent (HPA axis) and efferent pathways via the anti-tumor necrosis factor alpha effects.
7. Deep breathing with slow exhalation. This breathing method has been shown to reduce vagal tone and improve vagus nerve function.
8. Yoga. Yoga has demonstrable beneficial effects on the vagus nerve and reduces over-stimulation.
9. Compression exercise technology. These efficient training systems help to divert blood from the periphery to the gut and the brain and reduce inflammation via improved perfusion.
10. Meditation. Multiple studies support the power of meditation to improve pain, sleep, appetite, anxiety, and gastrointestinal function through its ability to have direct effects on vagal tone.
These are just a few things that you can do to improve brain function, gut function, and what sits in between. Sometimes complex pathways can respond to simple interventions.