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Training Your Brain For Gut Health – Is The Vagus Nerve The Missing Link In Resolving Chronic Digestive Disorders, Mental Health & Autoimmunity?

If you suffer from

  • Mental health conditions (Anxiety, Depression, Behavioural disorders such as ADHD)
  • Digestive disorders (Chronic Constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, Inflammatory Bowel Disease)
  • Autoimmune Diseases (Hashimotos Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis)

OR a combination of these…

It can be frustrating to feel like you are doing all of the ‘right’ things – you might be following a gluten free + dairy free/paleo/gluten-free/anti-inflammatory diet of sorts, ruled out or are treating IBS/infections/parasites, you’re taking probiotics, prebiotics, l-glutamine, digestive enzymes, bone broth, gut-healing powders and specific gut- nutrients (e.g zinc)…But you are STILL frustratingly suffering from gut symptoms and related conditions, and haven’t noticed a drastic improvement in your mental health and overall well-being.

Or you may feel much better taking these things but once you take them away you are immediately unwell. If this sounds like you, we may need to dive a bit deeper into the role of the gut-brain axis and in particular THE VAGUS NERVE, incorporating specific techniques to get your gut functioning strong and bowel movements happy, which in turn will drastically improve your mental health and help to dampen the inflammatory cascade of autoimmunity.

What Is the Brain-Gut Axis?

It is a pathway of communication that occurs via the vagus nerve and our gut microbiome.

Whilst we know much about the importance of our microbiome, aka our ‘beneficial gut flora,'(check out my blog article on prebiotics + sleep for more info) much less consideration is generally given to the other direction of this axis working ‘brain-down’, which is via the vagus nerve. Dr. Datis Kharrazian, who was awarded Researcher Of The Year in 2017 by the International Association of Functional Neurology, explains that “One of the most neglected things that I think most practitioner’s don’t understand, whether they’re conventional or alternative, is that there’s this brain-to-gut axis,”… and basically that what we may think of traditionally as gut-disorders are in fact neuro-degenerative diseases that start in the gut. The vagus nerve connects the brain with every other organ in the body, allowing the brain and the gut talk to each-other (they have quite an intimate relationship!)

This communication is “bi-directional,” meaning that communcation travels in both directions – the vagus nerve also carries information from the body back to the brain. Why is this so important for our digestion and overall health? Basically, the brain plays a crucial role in gut function as it controls gut motility (the movement of food through the intestines). When gut motility is impaired this means that your food is not moving and being broken down, nor can you make your own digestive enzymes, which will eventually result in fermentation and bacterial or yeast overgrowth.

Just taking digestive enzymes and gut-healing nutrients will not resolve the spectrum of underlying causes unless you address the brain-gut dysfunction – THE BRAIN is what makes us produce digestive enzymes in the first place and directs blood flow to the gut. One of the key things that would highlight an issue with the functioning of your vagus nerve is if you have issues with gut MOTILITY – i.e. if you have constipation, have to drink coffee to have a bowel movement, rely on magnesium or laxatives for bowel movements, if you have chronic & unresolved bloating…

If there is no gut motility or production of digestive enzymes due to dysfunction in the brain, this is what will will cause intestinal hyperpermeability (“leaky gut”) and then a range of downstream effects that drive chronic inflammation and an overactive immune system that can develop into an autoimmune condition – when they body starts to attack itself….so we may need to take a step back and approach chronic gut conditions from the brain down! This can not be done with a supplement – sure, they may help relieve symptoms, but it will not ultimately treat the underlying cause. In this case, we must develop plasticity and new neural connections so that:

-> Neurons fire into eachother -> Brain fires to the vagus nerve -> Vagus nerve fires into the gut nervous system -> migrating motor complex functions properly (which means gut motility will be functioning optimally)

Correcting an impairment in the brain-gut axis is so important, as many neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinsons & Alzheimer’s Disease have been linked to alterations in our gut microbiome and gut-brain axis.

One of the most common neuro-degenerative diseases, Parkinsons Disease, is referred to as an “alpha-synucleinopathy” – where a protein called alpha-synuclein builds up in between nerves which then can not communicate, and they begin degenerating off. The build-up of this protein leads to degenration which begins in two places:

1. The gut – people start to get gut degeneration

2. The olfactory bulb – people start losing their sense of smell.

The brain starts to degenerate, and since the majority of the brain’s output is at the pontine area where the vagus nerve lives, there is inevitably failure in the brain-gut axis at some point! Harnessing the vagus nerve should be a key treatment strategy for anyone predisposed or with an early diagnosis of any kind of neuro-degenerative diseases (including dementia). Alas, let’s get down to some of the key tools for firing up your vagus nerve and working from the brain down to ensure we are preventing and properly treating gut, mental health, autoimmune and neuro-degeneration!

GUIDE TO HARNESSING YOUR VAGUS NERVE:Dr. Kharrazian Has 3 Key Recommendations

1. Gargling – Take water, put it into the back of your throat and gargle to the point of tearing up. You must really work it out and gargle aggressively enough so that it makes your eyes tear, since the vagus is right next to an area called the superior salivatory nucleus, which causes you to tear. If this area of the brain isn’t functioning well you may have a hard time gargling, only being able to gargle for 3 or 4 second before having to spit it out. Build it up over time until you can do it for several minutes and you’re tearing consistently. This is how you activate it! Make this a daily routine. Gargling has been utilised in functional neurology for many years, e.g. people with head injuries.

2. Inducing Your Gag Reflex – Buy a box of tongue blades (can purchase online, e.g. through amazon), and use these to push down on the back of your tongue until you gag, which will make your eyes start to tear. Doing this activates the pathway, developing neural connections and getting plasticity going. Be careful not to push it on the back of your throat which could cause injury.

3. Coffee Enemas – NOT for ‘detox’ reasons, this tool is useful due to the caffeine which stimulates gastrointestinal nicotinic cholinergic receptors, which makes the gut move along. The key here is to get enough coffee so that you have to force yourself to SUPPRESS the urge to have a bowel movement – lay on your side and do the enema, and when you have an urge to have a bowel movement hang out there as long as you can, suppressing the urge. This fires the frontopontine vagal enteric axis.

Continually doing this builds endurance and starts to retrain the brain-gut axis. You want to ensure you are consuming a well-rounded, anti-inflammatory diet and taking digestive enzymes as well, as to not neglect the gut-brain pathway, whilst using the right techniques to training the brain-gut pathways. Singing is another fantastic remedy, which activates the vagal muscles in the back of your throat (you’ve got to sing loudly!)

And finally you must focus on utilising a range of lifestyle techniques, incorporating them into your schedule as they suit you, to ensure you are promoting your parasympathetic, “rest & digest” nervous system, to ensure optimal digestion & adequate blood flow to your digestive organs:

It might not seem like a typical ‘prescription,’ but please focus on incorporating these vagus nerve stimulating techniques if you have unresolved gut, autoimmune and mental health conditions (which may be overlapping), to ensure the brain-gut axis is working both ways!

Yours In Health

Steven Judge
Sydney Naturopath & Nutritionist
(02) 9211-3811
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