Do you get a sinking feeling in your gut when you think of the holidays and the stress that it may bring? The well-being of your gut impacts digestion, your immune system and even your mental health. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain and 500 million in your gut. They are connected through nerves in your nervous system which tell your body how to behave. This gut-brain axis involves two-way communication between the central and enteric nervous systems that are both physically and biochemically connected.
The gut-brain axis links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. This is especially true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no apparent physical cause. Sometimes it’s challenging to try to heal a distressed gut without taking into account the role of stress and emotion.
Stress can inhibit the signals sent through the vagus nerve, which is one of the biggest nerves in the body and acts on the brain, pharynx, lungs, heart, esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas and small intestine. The vagus nerve is a vital part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system increases digestion, intestinal motility, insulin activity, resistance to infection, rest, recuperation and endorphins, our ‘feel good’ hormone. In addition, it decreases; heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.
Here are some things you can do:
Practicing mild exercise such as yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and in doing so, stimulates the smooth muscle that lines the gut.
The idea is to breathe out for a few seconds longer than you breathe in. For example, breathe in for two counts and hold for one count, then breathe out for four counts and hold for one count. Practice this several times daily.
Singing causes vibrations that stimulate the vagus nerve, essentially giving it a workout. It helps us move out of the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, switching on the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
In the same way that singing stimulates the vagus nerve, laughing can also make us feel less stressed and more at peace.
Eat more plants
Cutting out animal products can help the vagus nerve to regulate heart rate and blood pressure better.
Cut down on sugar
Excess dietary sugar can lead to increased inflammatory markers in the digestive tract and can interfere with the communication pathways between the gut and the brain.
Sleep on your right-hand side
Sleeping on your right-hand side is thought to stimulate the vagus nerve more so than sleeping on your left or your back.
The vagus nerve stimulates the muscles we use to gargle water.
Some people do this by standing under a cold shower, but this takes some practice. To begin with, try splashing your face with cold water.
Try any combination of these vagus nerve stimulation exercises, and you could improve your gut-brain communication and overall health.
Supplements to Assist Digestion
Adding digestive enzymes and probiotic supplements may help your digestion this holiday season and into the future.
Digestive enzymes are proteins that help break down food, similar to how a jackhammer breaks down concrete. They work by breaking apart the bonds that hold nutrients together. Supplemental enzymes are effective over a wide range of pH levels in the body and can help digest many different types of food. Renew Life® carries a range of DigestMORE® formulas to meet your digestive needs. Talk to your local health food store to find the best formula for you.
Probiotics, on the other hand, are friendly bacteria that primarily live in your digestive tract and support the health of the digestive and immune systems. Bacteria in the gut digest fibre and help support your body’s natural digestive processes. They can also positively influence the digestion and utilization of proteins. Renew Life® EXTRA CARE™ PROBIOTIC contains 50 billion live cultures from 12 probiotic strains in a targeted-release vegetarian capsule. It supports digestive health and helps reduce the frequency of constipation, flatulence and irregularity. It contains Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, the #1 most-studied probiotic strain*and it’s shelf-stable with quality, purity and potency guaranteed right through to the expiration date.