Ayurveda & the Vagus Nerve: Heal the Gut and Reduce Stress

Often when health and wellness are discussed it’s as if your gut, brain, behavior, and emotions are all separate. When we begin to delve into how the body functions, we can see that it can’t be further from the truth. Through looking at the vagus nerve and the stress response we can delve more deeply into how to face stress, reduce inflammation, and heal our gut. The vagus nerve (cranial nerve x) is the main nerve of the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system. This means it plays a large role in the rest and digest part of the nervous system. The vagus nerve has an important role of communication between the brain, gut, cardiovascular system, and the immune system. The nerve is located from the brainstem down through the chest and into the abdomen, where it then goes to multiple organs.  The vagus nerve is a communicator. The brain sends signals to the organs of the chest and abdomen, as well as the gut and other organs to the central nervous system. The vagus nerve signals the brain to produce neurotransmitters and hormones. It coordinates the response to regulate stress reactions and also helping to keep inflammation down. It does this by having a parasympathetic relaxation response, which slows down breathing and heart rate, while stimulating digestion, promoting relaxation, and making you feel calm. To coordinate this response, the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This means your gut, brain, behavior, and immune system are all connected.  Why This Matters When we begin to understand how our bodies work, we can know how and why to treat them better. As the vagus nerve is a major role for the body, the health of this nerve is important for your brain, any inflammation, stress levels, and your immune system. When we begin an Ayurveda and Yoga practice it is about settling into your body and opening to your inner Self. If we do not access and relax our body through breathing, than our stress and immune system can become compromised.  Luckily, it is in our power to work on our response to the internal and external world. When people can relax more quickly after stress they have a stronger vagus nerve activity. The strength of the vagus nerve response is known as vagal tone. Chronic inflammation has been linked to low vagal tone. A reduce vagal tone can trigger the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by inflammatory cells) and can lead to an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity and stress hormones, such as cortisol, contributing to overall inflammation.  Through working on strengthening our vagal tone we can have a balanced immune system, a calm body and mind, and reduced stress and inflammation. This can be hard to practice if we don’t have an understanding of how stress works in the body. The Stress Response The Autonomic nervous system (ANS), part of your peripheral nervous system (everything except the brain and spinal cord), is responsible for responding to our environment. We respond in one of two ways: either the mind-body perceives threats and initiates the flight/fight/freeze responses, or perceives safety and maintains homeostatic balance where rest, repair, and growth can happen. These two response options are part of ANS known as the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  Whether you’re in a yoga class doing hip openers or being chased by a tiger, these real or imagined threats initiate the flight, fight, or freeze response, controlled by the SNS. The SNS sends stress hormones into the blood stream, causing increased heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, contraction of muscles, and depressed non-essential functions like digestion. In this perceived threatening state, our limbic system, the fear circuit of the brain, dominates. Instead of drawing on the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain to respond with reasoning and effective communication, social behavior becomes limited to survival strategies and we can react with aggression, withdrawal, or avoidance. Without a practice it can be easy to fall into old coping mechanisms and react to situations. In a perceived safe environment, our PNS initiates a relaxation response, which decreases heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, reduces muscles contraction, and allows repair and restore functions such as digestion to take place. This can counterbalance the SNS. We can do this by focusing on pranayama (breathing) exercises to calm down our nervous system. In this state, we can free up higher cognitive functioning and enable a more complex and flexible range of behavior. If we have deep trauma it can be hard to get to this place. However, an Ayurvedic and Yoga practice can help heal our gut, strengthen vagal tone, and allow for deeper us to calm our nervous system down. Ayurveda does this in three ways: 1) Healing the gut to treat the brain through food 2) Yoga, meditation, and pranayama (breathing exercises) 3) Abhyanga and self-massage on the abdomen to strengthen vagal tone and reduce stress. Health is not about one treatment or one pill that can help your gut, stress, or inflammation. It is a lifestyle change of being present, tapping into our breath, and treating your mind, body, and behaviors as a whole ecosystem. 

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