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What is the vagus nerve and how does it relate to our gut health?

Nutrition Editor Eve Kalinik focuses on our gut-brain ‘chat’ and how the stream of information carried by the versatile vagus nerve finds its way from our brain to gut, and vice versa

by Psychologies

Vagus

The first, most direct channel for the gut and brain to speak to each other is via the enteric nervous system and nervous system, using molecules called neurotransmitters. Imagine these as chemical messengers and, interestingly, they can be the same ones in the gut and the brain. The primary channel for this conversation is via the vagus nerve that meanders from the brain to the lowest part of the abdomen. With this direct exchange, the brain can send signals to the gut and, on the other end, our gut and microbiome can reciprocate and chat back.

Keep the comms coming

The other way our gut and brain communicate is via the immune system, where the gut can send substances to the brain to signal danger and the degree of inflammation. It is basically our gut’s own way of telling our brain ‘all is not good down here’. The opposite way, psychological stress can impair functioning of the immune system. The final path of communication uses the HPA axis that links our brain with the adrenal glands and the production of stress hormones. This is necessary for us to escape imminent threat, but perhaps not when we have chronic day-today stressors, and the impact this has on the gut can be tiresome.

Keeping the flow of gut-brain conversation relies on maintaining a healthy microbiome, as this is crucial for our gut bugs to produce sufficient neurotransmitters and important substances that help to manage mood, infl and stress. Support this with plentiful and diverse amounts of fibre found in fruit and veg, wholegrains, nuts and seeds and fermented foods, such as yogurt and cheese. Conversely, managing our stressors is just as vital. Include daily meditation or some kind of mindful practice. Deep belly breathing is also great to help soothe the vagus nerve, so taking five minutes a day to do this can help maintain a healthy and happy gut-brain dialogue.

For more from Eve Kalinik, visit evekalinik.com or follow her @evekalinik

Bring me sunshine

As we move into the autumn and darker days, it is important to supplement with vitamin D for myriad reasons, including the health of the gut and brain. My favourite is the vitamin D supplement from Wild Nutrition.

The Source by Tara Swart (Ebury, £12.99)

This insightful book, written by neuroscientist Tara Swart, delves deeper into how to best harness the power of the brain. It includes a chapter dedicated to the gut-brain connection. 

Image: Getty