When we deal with challenges like Crohn’s and colitis, we feel its impact daily. The digestive system and other parts of our body seem to fail us at every turn.
What if we could use our gut-brain connection and our vagus nerve pathway, (this amazing super communication highway between our brain and our microbiome) to our IBD benefit?
And what if it was amazingly simple? What if there were no-brainer, easy peasy ways that increase our vagal tone and ultimately create a positive impact for our gut?
Reducing symptoms like inflammation, boosting our immune system, reducing our stress response, balancing our mood with less anxiety and depression, healing the lining of our digestive tract.
Sometimes gut healing is hard.
Sometimes we need to take drastic, challenging steps to heal. And sometimes gut healing modalities are so simple that they are right at our fingertips.
No side effects, no toxic pills, no special diets to follow.
Just simple steps you can start right away.
Well, grab a and pen and paper, get out the notes app on your phone because today is all about some simple, no brainer steps you can take right now to improve your gut health and it’s all thanks to our amazing, often undervalued vagus nerve.
Three Things You’ll Learn in This Episode
🌿 The specific bacterial strain that’s been found beneficial in helping IBDer’s achieve remission.
🌿 How vagus nerve stimulation therapy is being used to help those with IBD find relief from mild to moderate symptoms.
🌿 The link between singing and IBD healing.
Mentioned in the Episode:
Episode 6: Use The Gut-Brain Connection to Your IBD Advantage
IBD Research Studies:
Vagus Nerve Meditations:
Connect With Karyn:
Gut Healing Through Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Gut instinct, gut feeling, even butterflies in your stomach… You might think these thoughts in your head, but you’re feeling them in your gut. That’s the gut/brain connection in action and its pull is strong. You can think of it like this: Maybe you have a friend or a family member who you chat with all the time, you know each other so well that you finish each other’s sentences, the two of you never run out of things to talk about… that’s the connection between the brain and the gut. It’s solid and no one is tearing it apart. This glorious link, this super communication pathway is all made possible by a part of the central nervous system called the vagus nerve. It travels down the back of your body and connects these two body systems so they can talk like two young girlfriends who stay up all night at a sleepover.
Now let’s bring IBD into the equation. When we deal with challenges like Crohn’s and colitis, we feel its impact daily, where the digestive system and other parts of our body seem to fail us at every turn. What if we could use this gut brain connection, this vagal pathway, this amazing friendship and connection, to our IBD benefit? And what if it was amazingly simple? What if there were no-brainer, easy peasy ways that increase our vagal tone and ultimately create a positive impact for our gut?
WE ALL WANT THAT.
Reducing symptoms like inflammation, boosting our immune system, reducing our stress response, balancing our mood with less anxiety and depression, healing the lining of our digestive tract.
Sometimes gut healing is hard. Sometimes we need to take drastic, challenging steps to heal. And sometimes gut healing modalities are so simple that they are right at our fingertips. No side effects, no toxic pills, no special diets to follow.
Just simple steps you can start right away.
Well, grab and pen and paper, get out the notes app on your phone because today is all about some simple, no brainer steps you can take right now to improve your gut health and it’s all thanks to our amazing, often under-valued vagus nerve.
Hello my friend, welcome back to The Cheeky Podcast. It’s a treat to be with you today, talking about one of my favorite gut healing topics that just doesn’t get enough attention—it’s the vagus nerve. I just stimulated mine right before I hit record on this episode so I am feeling energized and ready to tell you all about it.
LET’S WORK TOGETHER
Before we dive into the juicy details, I want to leave you with one final reminder… you might remember me talking about this at the end of the last couple episodes—my private health coaching practice is about to hit pause for new clients. I’m booking my last consult calls before I’m enacting my waitlist on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. If you and I are already working together, this won’t impact you at all. You are still good to go and it’s my honor to be by your side on your gut healing journey. But from time to time, I reach my client limit and in order to best serve the clients I do have, I need to press pause on taking any new clients.
One of those pauses is about to happen so if you’ve been thinking about how health coaching might be just what you need to get some clarity on getting your IBD into remission, if you’ve been feeling stuck in a rut, spinning your wheels and getting nowhere with your current IBD healing plan, or if you just feel overwhelmed with all your healing options and you don’t know where to start—hop on a client call with me. My 30-minute consults are completely free and we’ll chat about how your IBD is impacting your life, we’ll make a plan to get you started on the right path and we’ll talk about how we can work together to help your gut healing goals become your reality.
After these sessions, the comment I always get is “Wow, I don’t feel as overwhelmed anymore. Now I have a plan and a path forward.” That’s the best thing to hear for me. It truly lights me up. After all these years with Crohn’s, giving back in this way really feeds my soul. You know if you are a long time listener, supporting you on your IBD healing journey is my mission in life. I suffered for way too long before finally finding ways to help put my IBD symptoms in their place and I don’t want you to suffer like I did. There’s just so much that can be done to help. Sometimes, we just need someone to take us by the hand and walk with us as we figure things out.
Did I mention an IBD consult call with me is absolutely free? What are you waiting for? Now is the time mama. If you’re ready to take big, bold, IBD-sized action steps, I’m here to help. Go to karynhaley.com/consult to book your session with me today. Remember, it all goes away on July 12th, 2022 so take advantage of this opportunity before then.
OK my friend, it’s vagus nerve time and we are about to talk about some simple action steps you can take today, ones that can have a positive impact on your gut and the rest of your body. And let’s be honest here, this might seem like an episode that you want to skip because it’s not the sexiest topic and it may not be something you’ve heard about before so you’re not sure if it’s worth your time. Let me tell you my friend, you should definitely stay for this one because I’m about to share with you things that your doctor probably has never talk to you about before. You are not going to believe how profound and how simple some of these steps are that really can help with your Crohn’s and colitis symptoms.
But let’s take a quick step back before I share with you 11 simple ways that you can engage in stimulate your vagus nerve for better gut health because in order to fully embrace the simple action steps I’m going to lay out for you today, you’ll want to understand exactly what we’re talking about here and why this vagus nerve and the gut/brain connection has anything to do with your IBD.
WHAT’S THE VAGUS NERVE?
Now, we’re not going to get too detailed here, because there’s already a Cheeky Podcast episode about the gut/brain connection out there. It’s an oldie and for me it’s cringy to listen to, but the information is valuable so I’m going to swallow my pride and dread of you going there and taking a listen to remind you that it’s episode 6. We are up to 97 at this point, so please be kind. I hope the flow has improved since that one. But if you’re looking to expand your knowledge about the gut/brain axis, this episode is really intriguing to you, that’s the episode for you. It’s a good companion episode for this one. So go check that one out as well, but in this episode we are going to move beyond what the vagus nerve connection is and talk more about how to stimulate it for better gut health. Let’s just do a quick refresher of how this connection works and why it matters especially for those of us with IBD.
So, if you remember studying anatomy and physiology in school (and who doesn’t), you might remember just how amazing our body systems are (that part I do remember). The fact that they work in such harmony to keep us alive is truly astounding. The vagus nerve is one of those body systems. It’s part of (as the name suggests) the central nervous system or the CNS. The CNS breaks into different types of nerves and the vagus nerve is part of a CNS system called the parasympathetic nervous system. Its opposite counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight part of our anatomy we need in dangerous situations and when we see that there is no real danger, it’s up to the parasympathetic nervous system and our vagus nerve to kick in and calm us down.
The cool thing about this system is that it’s autonomic. We don’t have to think about it to make it work—our breathing, our heat beat, our digestion. All parts of this system are well-oiled machines that don’t take conscious thought to work. Well, the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, this calming system and it starts at the base of our skull and travels down our back with nerve endings moving into our heart, our immune system, and our digestive system.
When we talk about this nerve, we talk about it connecting the gut and the brain, but we really should include the microbiome in there as well. That’s the gut connection. Those trillions of tiny microorganisms, gut bugs if you will, play a crucial role here as well. You can think of this connection like an information superhighway and even though it contains no wi-fi, or dial up internet connection, it’s even faster connection than the world wide web, and definitely a more important because it connects all these major organs in you.
To keep our amazingly well-crafted bodies going, our organs need to be in constant communication with each other in for us to maintain homeostasis—or balance. And this communication is bi-directional so these are not one-way streets. The vagus nerve is not just the brain sending information one way down the road and the gut sending one way as well. It’s constant information going both ways all the time. Talk about a complicated system! Because of this complicated, constant communication, the vagus nerve gets to plays a roll in our food intake, our hunger, our satiety or feeling full when we eat, but also our physiology and even our behavior. Even just simple thoughts and feelings we’ve gotten used to when we have IBD are linked to this vagus nerve. The feeling of a rumbly, gurgly belly, feeling nauseous or queasy, even how your mouth waters when you think of your favorite food. It’s all about the gut/brain connection.
NOW THAT WE HAVE THE BASICS, LET’S GET WILD.
So far so good? Well, the this is where, in my opinion all this complicated anatomy gets interesting because it turns out that the health of the vagas nerve and the communications we are having between our microbiome and our brain actually have links to all kinds of illnesses, when the communication isn’t working at its peak. Autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, major depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS… research shows major connections to disrupted vagas nerve communication and because this nerve ending also plays a role in our fight or flight response, it also plays a huge roll in our stress response (how we experience stress and anxiety) and also in how inflammation shows up in our body.
See why if we could, we’d all want to find ways to have our vagas nerve working at its peak, why we’d want to stimulate it so it’s working to its fullest? Because when the vagas nerve is happy, the inflammation in our digestive track is lower, our stress response is more regulated and balanced, and we are at decreased risk for the other illnesses I just mentioned—both physical and mental health challenges.
ILLNESSES LINKED TO PROBLEMS WITH THE VAGUS NERVE.
A couple minutes ago, I said that this is where it gets interesting, the vagus nerve and its strong connection to disease and illness, hold on to your hat mama and get ready to geek out with me, because if that was interesting, it’s about to get fascinating. Everything I’ve mentioned so far has been information that’s been around for a while, but lately this gut, brain, microbiota connection, all through the vagus nerve has gotten even more fascinating because lately researchers have found that when we take specific bacterial strains (think probiotics, prebiotics), we can change the course of some of these types of illnesses.
So, it used to be that scientists would say, we know that probiotics are important for your gut health, but we’re not exactly sure which probiotic you should take. Take a multi-strain one because I’m sure one of the bacterial strains will help. But now, researchers have been able to pinpoint specific bacterial strains and say, “This one helps for depression, this one helps for Parkinson’s, this one helps for IBD.” And through treatment options like these, we are stimulating the connection between the gut and the brain through our microbiome for a healthier vagus nerve connection and a healthier whole body for you.
Now there’s a long way to go with this research, but it’s coming along more rapidly now that ever. Just think, if we could use very specific strains of bacteria on our own body, imagine how much more effective they’d be to control our Crohn’s and our colitis symptoms. For example, some new research has studied a bacterial strain called E. coli Nissle 1917 and it’s been shown to be beneficial for patients with both Crohn’s and colitis. Have you heard about this strain? I actually have some clients who swear by this probiotic as an integral roll in their Wheel of Wellness. Of course, everyone is individual and more research needs to be conducted, especially more human trials (so far it’s mainly been animal studies), especially before you know if it’s the best approach for you, but it’s an exciting start and I think it’s really going to move the IBD needle in a positive direction. Hopefully in our lifetime.
If you want to read more about this specific bacterial strain, the E. coli Nissle 1917 and see the research for yourself, go to the show notes at karynhaley.com/97 and you can check out the research for yourself.
VASGAL NERVE STIMULATION ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.
Thanks to all the new research currently being conducted, we can also get really specific with conditions that can be helped by stimulating our vagus nerve. Medical centers like The Cleveland Clinic have been treating gastroparesis (where food stops moving from the stomach to the intestines) and vasovagal syncope (basically fainting) with vagal nerve stimulation or VNS as it’s called. Those are more traditional uses for VNS, but information put out by the Cleveland Clinic also shows indications for VNS for other health challenges like cluster headaches, PTSD, and guess what other condition near and dear to our heart—yep, you guessed it VNS has been used to treat Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
And here’s where we get to the most useful part of this whole conversation today. We now know the why. Why the link between the brain, the gut, the microbiome, and IBD so important. Now we get to the how. How can you stimulate the vagus nerve to help as a healing tool for your Crohn’s and your colitis. Well, one way is through medical VNS (vagal nerve stimulation) I just mentioned.
So far, there have only been a few human studies looking at medical uses for VNS in IBD. In one study, patients with IBD had the VNS device inserted cervically and the device was implanted internally. This study did show promising results. But in a newer study the VNS devices were being used in a non-invasive way (not inserted inside the patients). One research study in 2021 I looked at showed a younger set of IBD patients, 10-year-olds to 21-year-old. They all had mild to moderate Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis and they didn’t respond to conventional treatment. The people in the study also had calprotectin levels of 200 or higher. I know most of us if not all of us are familiar with the lovely calprotectin level. It’s an IBD measurement tool through a stool sample that looks at IBD inflammation in our body. And level of 200 would be considered active inflammation.
So the young people in this study were either given VNS treatment externally through their left ear or externally on their lower leg. And although this was a small study, it at least was a human study and it definitely showed promising results for several of the patients—inducing remission for many. This is definitely prompting more research in the area of vagal nerve stimulation to help with IBD symptoms. We’ll have to see if this ends up as a treatment in our doctors’ offices. Wouldn’t that be cool?
So that’s what’s happening medically. That’s what’s happening with gut brain vagus nerve stimulation with research and possibly at some point, an option for treatment in your doctor’s office. But what can you do right now? What can you do to help increase your vagal tone right at home so that you can find gut healing benefits for you as well?
I mentioned the at the top of the episode that activating and stimulating your vagus nerve for better gut health is simple and something you can do right away. And as I give you these examples today, you’re going see just how accessible and easy this process is. Here’s 11 ways you can stimulate and increase your vagal tone to help you control inflammation, boost your immune system, heal mucosal lining, decrease your stress response and your feelings of anxiety, modulate your mood (especially for depression), become more resilient, and enjoy so many more of the benefits of this vagus nerve gut/brain connection.
Vagal tone, or a well-stimulated vagus nerve, is accessed by looking at your heart rate and your breathing rate. We want there to be a difference between your inhalation heart rate and your exhalation heart rate. Your breath should speed up when you breath in and slow down when you breath out. And this means higher vagal tone means which equals a healthier gut/brain connection.
THE MOMENT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR.
So let’s increase your vagal tone, all with ways we don’t need to go to the doctor’s office for. All with easy ways that need no special equipment, shall we?
#1: You can increase your vagal tone with gentle exercise.
And I think you’ll find that gentle exercises like yoga is especially beneficial here as there are lots of twisting your torso exercises in this type of practice. Twisting exercises help with smooth muscle contractions and smooth muscle contractions aid in digesting your food. Gentle impact exercise stimulates your vagus nerve for better digestion.
#2: You can increase your vagal tone with deep breathing exercises.
Deep breathing promotes the parasympathetic nervous system’s state of relaxation, calm, and peace. There’s several ways you can incorporate deep breathing into your day. I’m a huge fan as you already know of the 4-7-8 breath. This is the breath where you breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, you hold it for 7 seconds, and then you breathe out through your mouth for 8 seconds. It’s a breath you can do anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
I’m also a huge fan of taking three slow, deep intentional breaths in the morning before I get out of bed. And also taking three slow, deep intentional breaths before I go to bed at night. It’s just very calming and soothing and a lovely way to start and end the day and good for that vagal tone.
Alternate nostril breathing is also a wonderful breathing exercise to stimulate the vagus nerve. It involves blocking off one nostril, while breathing in and then taking turns closing the other nostril as you breath out. You can repeat this breathing exercise on both nostrils 10-20 times playing with how slow or fast you complete the cycle.
The most important part about deep breathing is no matter how many seconds you decide to make the breath last, when you breathe in and then breathe out, try to make your exhalation breath double the time of your inhalation. So if you breathe in for four seconds, you’ll want to breathe out for eight seconds. And if you choose to breathe in for three seconds you’ll want to breathe out for six seconds. Continue to try to lengthen the time of your deep breathing and you’ll be sending signals of calm and relaxation to your vagus nerve.
#3: You can increase your vagal tone by singing.
Yes, you heard that right singing. Whether you’re tone deaf or you sing like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, it doesn’t matter. Just the act of singing is all you need for this vagus nerve stimulator. This is my favorite way to stimulate my vagus nerve. It works because vibrations in your body from singing gives your vagus nerve a workout. There’s no fight or flight response while we are singing. Just lots of rest and digest which is all part of the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve.
#4 You can increase your vagal tone by side sleeping.
Are you already a side sleeper? If you are, that is a bonus and if you are sleeping on your right side that’s a double bonus. Right side sleepers are stimulating their vagus nerve and increasing their vagal tone while they sleep. It couldn’t be simpler than that.
Now if you are a back or tummy sleeper, you can always use a pillow to help. You know one of those long pillows or U-shaped pillows. I always called it my boyfriend pillow. They’re those long body pillows you probably remember from when you were pregnant. I would always tell my husband, my boyfriend’s coming to bed with us tonight. Totally bad joke but he always laughed at it which is how I know I picked a keeper. If they laugh at your bad jokes, they are a keeper. If you prop that type of pillow behind your back, it can help you stay on your right side while you sleep.
#5 Speaking of laughing with your spouse, you can increase your vagal tone by laughing.
Laughter truly is the best medicine. Laughter stimulates your vagus nerve and increases vagal tone. So often as moms, we forget to laugh. We’re so busy running our household and taking care of our health that laughter gets left behind. I was definitely the victim the cheerless mom. So, this year I made a pact with myself that I would have a huge belly laugh at least once a day. I love to watch comedians (Jim Gaffigan is a personal fav, he always makes me laugh), but I’ll also watch funny YouTube videos, and I’ve asked my older teens to send me funny animal memes on my phone because they always crack me up. It’s my goal to laugh hard, get in a true belly laugh, at least once a day and getting my family involved in it helps me stick to my goal.
Not only am I stimulating my vagus nerve here, but I feel like laughter is just good for my whole body, mind, and soul.
#6 You can increase your vagal tone by getting some acupuncture.
Great if you already have an acupuncturist, I don’t know if I would go out and get one just for this benefit because there are so many other options here. But if you already have an acupuncturist, you might want to let them know that you are interested in stimulating your vagus nerve for better gut-brain health. They are trained in increasing your vagal tone and will definitely be able to help you out.
#7 You can increase your vagal tone through meditation.
And you know I am not a “make your mind blank” type of meditator. So you know that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about active mind visualizations that help strengthen your gut-brain connection. Meditations like this not only improve your vagal tone, but they can also improve the quality of your sleep, how you express pain in your body, it can help decrease anxiety, as well as your G.I. symptoms.
My favorite meditation app is insight timer, it’s full of free meditations and they even have great vagus nerve stimulation options. I put my top three favorite in the show notes so if you’re interested in using meditation to stimulate your vagus nerve, go check it out at KarynHaley.com/97
#8 You can increase your vagal tone with cold exposure.
Have you tried this before? This is something I’m really getting into lately, and I’m not going lie, I’m really struggling with it. I’m not going to give up though because I know just how beneficial cold exposure can be. Cold situations like a cold shower, a cold plunge pool, an ice bath… people swear by these and research shows that it benefits our vagal tone as well.
If you’re new to all of this like me with cold therapy, you might want to just start by drinking a glass of cold water or splashing cold water on your face. That can be a baby step and can help get you moving in the right direction with this vagus nerve stimulator.
#9 You can increase your vagal tone by taking specific bacterial strains.
We talked about this earlier in the episode, this new research showing that specific bacterial strains rather than multi strain probiotics may be a direction that can help your Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Remember E. coli Nissle 1917? That’s one in the research that is promising for Crohn’s as well as colitis.
There are also several bacterial strains that have been shown to benefit the vagus nerve. Another one is Bifidobacterium longum. That has been found helpful for those with anxiety. So if that something that you experience, you might want to check out the research on that as well. I’ll leave the links for that in the show notes as well.
#10 You can increase your vagal tone by cutting down on sugar.
What ailment can’t be helped by cutting out sugar? This is a no-brainer. Sugar causes chronic inflammation, and it impairs your vagus nerve pathways. Inflammation of the mucosal lining is also present when there’s too much sugar in the diet. It disrupts the microbe communication between the brain and the gut. So as best you can, get rid of the sugar. It will help your gut brain connection.
#11 you can increase your vagal tone by gargling.
Yep, simple gargling. Getting a bunch of warm water and gargling it in the back of your throat. This option works much like singing because it is all about the vibrations it creates in your body. Those gargly vibrations stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s like in giving the vagus nerve a work out.
For a highly effective IBD gargle and swish, especially to keep the mouth sores away which are so common with Crohn’s and colitis, I highly recommend adding into your warm water a touch of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. Now you’re helping the health of your mouth and stimulating the vagus nerve at the same time. Win, win.
I told you those were simple right. We’re not talking about rocket science here. These are things that all of us can do right now, today, to help with the health of our gut. I know you can do at least four or five of these right away. Maybe more!
Let’s recap increasing your vagal tone ideas real quick before we go.
4- Laughter is the best medicine
5- Side sleeping (right side)
8- Cold exposure
9- Specific bacterial strains
10- Cut down on the sugar. You are sweet enough.
Right now, the ones I’m most actively working on are deep breathing, singing, laughter, meditation, and cold exposure. All of them probably play some sort of roll for me, but those are the ones that I think are most important for me right now. How about you? Which of these are you currently actively engaged in or which ones do you feel like you could do more of? As always I want to hear from you. Let’s connect so you can tell me what vagal tone exercises you’ll be trying. There’s a comment section at the bottom of the show notes. Tell me what one or two vagal tone strategies you are going to start right away. Ones that will help not only your Crohn’s or colitis, but your whole body as well. Karynhaley.com/97. I can’t wait to hear from you. The gut-brain connection, it always makes me feel lucky and grateful for all my body does for me.
Don’t forget, you’ve got only a few days to book your free IBD consult with me and for us to work together with me by your side as you find your best IBD healing path. My free consultations and private 1 on 1 health coaching sessions are hitting pause. It all goes away on July 12, 2022 so book your free consult at karynhaley.com/consult
Until we meet again, I’m wishing you a cheeky and healthy gut healing journey.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
This podcast, video, and blog post is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.