by Patti Shelton, MD, RYT

In Chinese medicine, fall is all about the lungs and the colon.  In thinking about these two organs, I realized that there’s a connection between them that’s stronger than many people might realize.  And the name of that connection is the vagus nerve.

vagus nerveThe vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves in the body.  It carries messages between the brain and the organs of the body.  The vagus is part of your nervous system’s parasympathetic branch —  the “rest and digest” branch.  This is the nerve that’s active when you’re calm and relaxed, not at all afraid of saber-toothed tigers (or that presentation you have to give to your whole team on Monday).

When you’re all stressed out (and let’s face it, modern life offers you plenty of opportunities to get stressed out), your vagus goes quiet, while your sympathetic nervous system — “fight or flight” — activates.  Without stimulation from the vagus, the digestive system basically stops working.  No time for digestion, it believes, because we need our energy to run from the saber-toothed tiger.  (Or angry boss.)

Many people experience digestive symptoms when feeling stressed, such as constipation, bloating, and other unpleasantness.  They may seek relief in the diet or herbal remedies, and while these may help some people, if the problem is the nervous system, then the relief will also be in the nervous system.  So how to activate the vagus?

The vagus carries signals in both directions — from the brain to the body, and from the body to the brain.  And while you don’t have direct conscious control over your digestive functions, you do have direct conscious control over another important vagal function: your breathing.

deep breath quoteDeep, slow, full breaths signal up the vagus that you’re calm and relaxed.  The brain responds by increasing the signals it sends down through the vagus — including those to the gut.

So when your gut’s acting up, what’s the quickest thing you can do to help?  Breathe.  Take a long slow inhale, followed by a longer slower exhale.  Repeat as many times as necessary.  The only side effect will be how much calmer you feel.

Patti Shelton, MD RYT teaches Yoga weekly at AIM, and also privately through Radiance Yoga.