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Alyssa Simpson RD, CDE, CLT
Alyssa Simpson

RDN, CGN, CLT
(602) 422-9800

Sibo Doctor Approved
certified gastrointestinal nutritionist
Sibo Doctor Approved
certified gastrointestinal nutritionist

Looking for a New Way to Improve Your IBS? Exercise Your Vagus Nerve

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Man in a silly shower cap singing in a cold shower to exercise his vagus nerve and improve his IBS symptoms.

Table of Contents

If you’ve got IBS, you probably focus on the foods you eat to manage your symptoms. And yes, choosing the right foods for your body can make a big difference when it comes to IBS. You want to be aware of your food sensitivities and intolerances. And for many people with IBS, the low FODMAP diet is a game-changer.

But choosing your foods wisely is only one piece of the IBS puzzle. While you can mitigate your symptoms by eating with care, there’s more to your digestive issues than what you’re eating.

I talk a lot about finding the root cause of your symptoms. It’s really the only way to deal with them in a meaningful and permanent way. The best way to do this is to work with a good practitioner who will take the time to figure out the underlying issues that are causing your digestive problems.

The food you eat didn’t cause your IBS. And that means there are some non-food strategies that may make a difference for you. So far we’ve talked about how mindful eating, exercise, and gut-directed hypnosis can help with your IBS symptoms.

This week we’re going to hone in on the gut-brain connection — specifically the vagus nerve.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the primary line of communication between your gut and your brain. And it’s the longest nerve in your body. It starts at the base of your brain, runs through your neck, then branches out and connects to most of your major organs, and extends down to your large intestine.

The vagus nerve plays an important role in your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls digestion, heart rate, and more. When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, you are in rest and digest mode (as opposed to fight or flight).

With its connection to most of the vital organs, the vagus nerve plays a role in just about everything — heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, immune response, mood, and digestion. So yes there is a strong vagus nerve and IBS connection.

How does the vagus nerve impact IBS?

The vagus nerve is responsible for the majority of the communication that happens between your gut and your brain. But this communication can go awry in a couple of ways. Either the wrong messages get sent, or the correct messages are misinterpreted. This can cause IBS symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and pain.

Poor vagus nerve tone can be the result of a variety of things, including excessive stress, certain medications, inflammation, and infections. This is not a comprehensive list though. So it’s possible to have poor vagal tone even if none of these apply to you.

It is possible to tone your vagus nerve and improve these communication mishaps. So let’s dive into vagus nerve exercise…

Exercise Your Vagus Nerve

You can improve the tone of your vagus nerve and nudge your body into rest and digest mode. And it doesn’t even involve the gym — although research shows that traditional exercise can benefit your vagus nerve as well.

Here are some vagus nerve “exercises” that can help.

Try some diaphragmatic breathing

Most people are in the habit of taking shallow breaths most of the time. And this doesn’t do your vagus nerve any favors. But if you can engage your diaphragm — the muscle at the bottom of your lungs — then this can tone your vagus nerve and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.

Diaphragmatic breathing — also known as belly breathing — involves taking slow, deep breaths that engage your diaphragm. This will both tone your vagus nerve and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Not sure if you’re using your diaphragm or not? Try this:

? Lay on the floor with one hand on your abdomen.

? Take a slow, deep breath, imagining that a balloon is inflating under your belly button. You’ll feel your hand rise and fall with your breath. Your shoulders should be still.

You may notice you feel calmer when you do this. It’s no accident that we encourage panicked people to take slow, deep breaths. It really does help you calm down.

Once you’re familiar with how it feels to engage your diaphragm, you can take belly breaths in any position. And if you want to supercharge this vagus nerve exercise, make your exhale a couple seconds longer than your inhale.

Take a cold shower — for a minute at least

Research shows that ending your shower with a blast of cold water for a minute or so has a variety of health benefits, including toning your vagus nerve. At the end of your shower, turn the water temperature down and let it blast you for about a minute.

You can get this same effect by taking a walk outside when it’s cold.

Sing

Yes, I’m serious. The vagus nerve connects directly to your vocal cords and the muscles in the back of your throat. So activating these muscles can help with vagal tone. But if you don’t want to sing that’s okay. You can also hum, chant, or gargle to the same effect.

Meditate

Meditation is shown to increase positive emotions, help you feel better about yourself, and improve your vagal tone — taking your nervous system out of sympathetic (fight or flight) mode.

Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated or perfect. Lot’s of new meditators get frustrated because they expect their mind to just go blank for long periods of time. Meditation is not about perfection, or even clearing your mind. Spending 5-10 minutes sitting with your eyes closed and focusing on your breathing or the sounds you hear around you counts too.

There are lots of meditation resources out there. Try YouTube, or an app like Calm or Headspace.

Get a massage

Massage can also stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone. How’s that for exercise? Reflexology, a type of foot massage that puts pressure on different areas of your feet, is also known to help with vagal tone.

Have some fun

Research shows that making positive social connections and laughing (or even remembering those times) can improve vagus nerve tone. There’s evidence that laughter and vagus nerve stimulation are connected as well. In fact, sometimes people will literally laugh when their vagus nerve is stimulated.

A Multifaceted Approach to IBS

Research into IBS solutions has branched out far beyond just food and obvious digestion problems. Some of the strategies we’ve gone over this month are proving to be extremely effective in the treatment and management of IBS. In fact, in some cases these strategies are even more effective than dietary changes.

But if you want to take full advantage of all the cutting-edge research, you need to work with a practitioner who’s paying attention. If you’re looking for some innovative ways to address your IBS, I’d be happy to chat with you. I offer a free 15 minute strategy session where we touch on your symptoms and look at how I can help.

If you’re just looking for some new tips and tricks for managing your IBS, The IBS Resource Guide is a solid place to start. This free guide includes apps, supplements, and even packaged foods that can simplify your IBS journey.

If you’re looking for a supportive community to find ideas, answers to your questions, and provide people to chat with who understand what it’s like to navigate IBS, I invite you to join my free Facebook community.

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