If your chronic digestive problems have led to cull through alternative health websites and wellness books, you may have heard the name Dr. Datis Kharrazian. He is one of the leading educators on brain and gut health, the author of bestselling books, and the developer of a line of cutting-edge supplements used by holistic practitioners.
“If a person has a brain-to-gut axis disorder, they’re not going to fix it with digestive supplements.” Datis Kharrazian
Many alternative practitioners give hydrochloric acid supplements and digestive enzymes to support their clients digestion. This usually ameliorates the symptoms of poor digestion, we need to continue taking these supplements to keep the symptoms at bay.
That’s because the root cause is in the brain, not the stomach. The brain isn’t sending the signal to the stomach to turn on gastric juice production.
Doling out digestive enzymes is a similar band-aid approach. It is often necessary to support the absorption of nutrients, but enzymes don’t fix the root cause. The brain continues to fail in turning on enzyme production in the pancreas.
The brain turns on digestion. If the brain can’t send the ON signal to the gut, digestion isn’t going to happen.
The Vagal Nerve is The “Digestion Muscle”
That ON signal travels from brain-to-gut via the vagal nerve. The vagal nerve is like a muscle – if your vagal nerve is weak, it can’t do the heavy lifting of turning on digestion. Yes, I’m calling a nerve a muscle, but stay with me through this analogy. It is the most accessible way to understand this concept. If you think of the vagal nerve as a muscle, it can have strong vagal tone (like a toned muscle) or weak vagal tone.
With strong vagal tone, the brain delivers the ON signal to the following processes of digestion:
- In the stomach, strong vagal tone stimulates stomach acid, for optimal digestion.
- In the intestines, strong vagal tone triggers peristalsis, the muscle contractions that move food through the intestines.
- In the pancreas, strong vagal tone triggers enzyme production and release for digestion.
- In the liver, strong vagal tone triggers bile synthesis, detoxification, and blood sugar functions.
- In the gallbladder, strong vagal tone triggers the release of bile, which rids the body of toxins and breaks down fat.
When vagal tone is weak, all those processes don’t get properly fired up.
How to Get Strong Vagal Tone
If you have weak biceps, you know that the solution is a regular workout routine. You wouldn’t expect a magic pill to bulk up without exerting effort and perseverance (well, you could inject some testosterone but at the risk of messing up that precise choreography called all your hormones.)
Similarly, if you have weak vagal tone, you can’t expect a digestive supplement to be your magic pill. You need to exercise your vagal nerve.
When you do practices to strengthen vagal tone, you are actually building new brain pathways. This is the science of neuroplasticity at work: you are building new, healthy neural pathways in your brain. Good digestion is your brain traveling healthy brain pathways.
In the below interview and in his book, Dr. Kharrazian popularized the following exercises to strengthen vagal tone:
- Gargling aggressively multiple times a day, to the point of tearing.
- Engaging your gag reflex by using a tongue depressor, many times a day (it’s like “pushups for your vagal nerve”)
- Coffee enemas, which are retained as long as possible. The caffeine stimulates movement in the colon, and the suppression of the bowel movement urge is working out the vagal nerve.
Those aren’t the most comfortable methods of increasing vagal tone. Other ways include:
- Singing loudly vibrates and activates the vagal nerve. I have always sung out loud when stressed (when I’m at home, that is). I intuitively knew that singing calmed me down, but I didn’t know why. When we activate the vagal nerve, we shift out of the Sympathetic (fight/flight) state of the nervous system.
- Chanting also improves vagal tonicity. I find it interesting that most ancient spiritual practices incorporated chanting. It is the prolonged exhales and vibration of the vagus nerve that improves vagal tone.