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Role Of the Vagus Nerve in Digestion and Gut Health

Updated on November 8, 2022
Role Of the Vagus Nerve in Digestion and Gut Health

The vagus nerve is your body's largest cranial nerve and is responsible for various functions, including digestion, speaking, swallowing, and regulating the heart rate. The vagus nerve has been shown to influence mood, stress, and anxiety levels and its role in digestion. This article will explore how the vagus nerve affects gut health.

Vagus Nerve Function

The vagus nerve (cranial nerve 10) is the longest cranial nerve in the body, coming in at over ten times as long as your average nerve. It runs from your brainstem into your abdomen, connecting to various organs such as your heart and stomach.

The vagus nerve has two main roles: motor and sensory. The motor branch of the vagus is responsible for sending signals back up to your brain that tell you how well different organs are functioning. Other parts of the nervous system can then use this information to regulate things like digestion rate or blood pressure regulation. The sensory branch provides information about what's happening inside our bodies—for example, it can give us feedback when we're feeling thirsty or hungry so that we know when we need something to eat (or drink) next!

This very long cranial nerve also has some pretty interesting nicknames—you might hear someone say they have a "wandering" or "vagabond" stomach if they have frequent indigestion problems. This comes from the fact that when something malfunctions along this pathway connecting, everything like this does happen much more frequently than most other areas within our bodies are affected by problems caused by damage done elsewhere."

The Role of the Vagus Nerve in Digestion

The vagus nerve is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates your digestive system. One of its primary functions is to stimulate and slow down this process.
The vagus nerve has two parts: afferent nerves that carry information from your gut to your brain and efferent nerves that send signals from your brain to the muscles of your stomach and intestines. This system helps control digestion by increasing or decreasing gastric contractions (which break down food) and releasing hormones like gastrin into blood circulation after you've eaten something high in fat or protein.

The vagus nerve also sends signals through special cells called enteric neurons found within intestinal tissue called myenteric plexuses; these cells send chemical messages between neurons so they can communicate directly without going through relay stations (like pain receptors).

Effects on Mood, Stress, and Anxiety

In addition to its role in digestion and gut health, the vagus nerve also plays a part in mood, stress, and anxiety.

How? First, studies have shown that the vagus nerve can affect brain areas connected to emotional processing. In one study, researchers found that stimulating the vagus nerve increased activity in an area of the brain called the amygdala — an area involved in emotional regulation. This suggests stimulating your vagus nerve might help you feel more relaxed or happy while reducing negative emotions like fear or anger.

Another way that activating your vagus nerve could help reduce stress involves gut bacteria: Research suggests there may be a link between imbalances of certain types of gut bacteria (called "dysbiosis") and depression.

In one study on mice at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine​, researchers found that giving mice antibiotics led to changes in certain types of gut microorganisms — which were later associated with stress-related behavior​. The researchers concluded that their findings suggest how important it is for people who are experiencing depression symptoms as well as gastrointestinal issues (such as irritable bowel syndrome or constipation) to work with their healthcare providers on improving both conditions simultaneously by addressing any underlying dysbiosis first before trying other treatments like medications or behavioral therapy alone.

Stimulating Your Vagus Nerve

  • Breathing exercises: Breathing is a simple way to stimulate your vagus nerve. Take deep breaths through the nose and exhale through the mouth with a sigh. You can do this for as little as one minute at a time or up to several minutes per day.
  • Meditation: Meditation has been shown to lower stress levels, improve focus and mental clarity, and even reduce chronic pain, all of which contribute to positive gut health. There are many different types of meditation available online and in books—even apps!—so there's no excuse not to try it out for yourself!
  • Yoga has many benefits beyond just stimulating your vagus nerve; it has also been shown to increase strength throughout each muscle group and improve flexibility and cardiovascular endurance (which makes us feel good after!). Classes are available everywhere, from gyms to local parks on weekends if you want something convenient but fun if you're new at yoga.
  • Journaling: Writing in a journal can help you increase the tone of your vagal nerve and balance out your fight-or-flight reaction to stress. Try writing in your notebook several times for 20 minutes. This will set off a psychological cascade that, by triggering your relaxation response, will help you cope with stress, worry, anger, and inflammation. In order to produce a meaningful narrative of your emotions, intellectual processes, and mental state during the previous few days, you must include your greatest feelings in a tale. This is known as ⦁ expressive narrative journaling.

How Does the Vagus Nerve Affect Gut Health?

The vagus nerve is the main nerve in the enteric nervous system. The role of this system is to regulate digestive processes, including the secretion of hormones and enzymes that break down food into smaller particles that your intestines can absorb. The gut is part of the enteric nervous system, which the vagus nerve can influence.

The vagus nerve influences gut health by stimulating the release of digestive juices and hormones that enable you to digest food properly. It also helps move food through your digestive tract, so waste products are removed efficiently from your body.


The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, originating from your brainstem and extending throughout your abdomen to all your organs. It's also known as the "wandering" or "sentinel" nerve because it wanders throughout many different areas of your body. The vagus nerve regulates heart rate and blood pressure via its connection with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The PNS is responsible for slowing down various internal processes like breathing, digestion, and elimination. It's activated when you're relaxed or sleeping—when you're stressed out or anxious. This part of your central nervous system doesn't function optimally because it's busy dealing with other things like keeping you awake at night worrying about deadlines or what happened on last week's episode of Game of Thrones.

When trying to improve gut health, the gut-brain link must be taken into account, and raising your vagal nerve tone can assist. To improve the tone of your vagal nerve, try to engage in at least one of these stress-relieving activities each day.

But keep in mind that awareness is the key. Eliminate any distractions, become aware of any tension in your body, and relax so that you can give the activity all of your attention.
In summary, the vagus nerve is an important pathway for communication between the brain and the gut. It connects to many different organs, including your stomach and pancreas. The vagus nerve's role in digestion and gut health is one that we are just beginning to understand, but it's clear that there are many benefits associated with stimulating this pathway.


⦁ Özçağlayan, Ö., Kurtoğlu Özçağlayan, T. İ., Doğru, M., & Mete, R. (2020). Vagus nerve assessment via ultrasonography in irritable bowel syndrome. Are there any changes of dimension in the vagus nerve? The Turkish journal of gastroenterology: the official journal of the Turkish Society of Gastroenterology, 31(7), 503–507.

⦁ Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Narrative expressive journaling could help your vagus nerve. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 5, 2022, from

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