If you have chronic gut problems, you may possibly have a brain problem as well. This is especially true if you’ve had a head injury or if you also suffer from worsening memory, brain fog, cognitive decline, or other symptoms of poor brain function.
Chronic digestive complaints — indigestion, acid reflux, constipation, burping, gas, bloating, diarrhea, pain, or irritable bowel disorders — are common complaints of a brain that is not functioning well. The brain gives orders to the gut through the vagus nerve, which then tells the gut to digest food, repair and regenerate the gut lining, push food through the intestines (motility), and many other functions. When brain function declines, the brain does not give the vagus nerve enough input. As a result, constipation, leaky gut, food sensitivities, irritable bowel disorders, and other problems can arise. This is one reason why people with a head injury or dementia have chronic gut complaints.
Exercise the vagus nerve to address gut problems
In functional neurology, we conduct a neurological exam to evaluate areas of the brain that are not functioning well. We then provide activities to activate or dampen different areas of the brain, depending on your needs, to improve function. This in turn can improve communication between the vagus nerve and the gut. However, sometimes you can activate the vagus nerve yourself at home with some very simple daily activities.
Vagus nerve exercises
A few simple tests can tell you if your vagus nerve may not be sufficiently active:
- You don’t have much of a gag reflex; when you say, “ahhh” the uvula (the little punching bag at the back of your throat) does not rise much
- When you listen to your abdomen with a stethoscope, you hear virtually no rumbling noises — a healthy gut makes intermittent rumbling noises.
Here are some simple exercises to activate the vagus nerve, taken from Dr. Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?:
Gargle vigorously several times a day
Gargling contracts the back of the throat, which activates the vagus nerve. Gargle each drink of a glass of water several times a day. Gargle vigorously and for a good length of time, ideally until your eyes tear (it may take a while to build up to that.)
If you are alone at home or in the car, spend some time singing as loudly as you can. This also activates the back of the throat and hence the vagus.
Using a tongue depressor, which you can buy off of Amazon, gently press on the back of your tongue to make yourself gag. Please do not poke the back of your throat. Do this several times a day, again, ideally until your eyes tear. Gargling and singing are like sprints for the vagus nerve, whereas gagging is strength training.
This is a simple overview of how to improve gut function by activating the brain. For more customized advice, please contact my office.