The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body and helps control many crucial functions.
It sends and receives signals from the digestive system — among other organs — to the brain, and can affect everything from your mood and stress levels to your heart rate, immune response, and digestion.
The vagus nerve can also play a role in inflammation and various conditions and diseases if it’s working improperly.
Knowing this, you may wonder if you can stimulate the activity of your vagus nerve through your diet.
This article explains the link between the vagus nerve and gut health, how your diet may influence vagus nerve function, and what a vagus nerve diet might include.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem through the neck and the chest down to the gut, supplying nerves to various organs and regions of the body.
Because of its long path and far-reaching effects on many parts of the body, it has been described as the wanderer nerve (1).
It functions as part of the parasympathetic system, regulating various functions like digestion, heart and breathing rate, and reflex actions like swallowing, coughing, and sneezing (1).
Since it runs throughout much of the body and impacts many organs and systems, damage or dysfunction to the vagus nerve can trigger various systems, including:
- dysphagia or difficulty swallowing
- irregular heart rate
- change in blood pressure
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- gastroparesis (delayed stomach emptying)
- inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability
- weight gain
- postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)
The symptoms and severity of these symptoms vary depending on which part of the nerve is affected and the activity and strength of the vagus nerve, referred to as vagal tone.
Poor vagal tone or functioning can be caused by excessive stress, diseases, inflammation, and infections, among other things.
Although certain forms of stress can overstimulate the nerve, many of the symptoms linked with vagus nerve damage or dysfunction are due to underactive nerve activity, or low vagal tone.
In people with low vagal tone, stimulating the vagus nerve inhibits inflammation and is believed to help treat a wide range of conditions, including depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
As such, many treatments for vagus nerve damage or dysfunction focus on vagus nerve stimulation.
Electronic stimulators, referred to as vegas nerve stimulation (VNS) devices, send an electrical pulse to the vagus nerve, which then travels to the brain.
These devices have been approved for use in depression and epilepsy (2).
However, increasing evidence suggests that you may be able to stimulate the nerve with diets that promote good gut health.
The vagus nerve travels widely throughout the body affecting several organ systems and regions of the body. Vagus nerve dysfunction or damage can trigger various symptoms that affect digestion and the brain.
The role of the vagus nerve in the gut-brain axis
The vagus nerve is the fastest and most direct route that connects the gut and brain (3).
The bidirectional communication between the gut and brain is referred to as the gut-brain axis.
Trillions of microorganisms inhabit the gut and make up your gut microbiota, which plays a critical role in immune system function.
The vagus nerve does not come in direct contact with the gut microbiota but it senses and relays its signals to the brain where they can alter mood, behavior, and digestion (4).
In this way, the composition and function of the gut microbiota — which is directly influenced by your diet — can influence vagal tone.
Animal studies suggest that dysbiosis — an unfavorable imbalance of the microorganisms in the gut — reduces vagal tone and therefore contributes in part to various digestive conditions and mood disorders (5, 6, 7).
However, it’s still largely unknown whether poor gut health leads to reduced vagal activity or reduced vagal activity leads to poor gut health.
But given the close connection between them, it’s likely that eating foods that are good for gut health and limiting or avoiding those that aren’t may contribute to vagus nerve health and therefore improve some of the conditions associated with low vagal tone.
The vagus nerve connects the gut and brain through what’s known as the gut-brain axis. It sends signals to the gut from the brain that can alter mood, behavior, and digestion.
Foods for vagus nerve health
Foods that are good for gut health can support vagus nerve health.
These foods include those that are rich in fiber and polyphenols — plant-based compounds that offer potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
- fruits, especially berries, cherries, grapes, and apples
- vegetables, especially olives, artichokes, and dark leafy greens
- nuts and seeds
- dark chocolate
- fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring
- olive or avocado oil
- eggs and skinless poultry
- various spices and dried herbs, such as cloves, peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme
- coffee and tea
Many of these foods are staples of the Mediterranean diet, which has also been shown to support vagus nerve health (8).
This doesn’t mean that you should significantly increase your sodium intake, but if you don’t frequently consume sodium-rich foods like bread, rolls, pizza, processed meats, soups, and savory snacks, liberally salting your foods may be a strategy for improved vagal tone.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fatty fish, among other foods, are rich in fiber and polyphenols that increase vagal tone by supporting gut health.
Foods to avoid or limit for healthy vagal tone
Foods that may impair vagal tone are generally pro-inflammatory and negatively affect the gut microbiota.
These foods are generally rich in added sugars and saturated fats.
- Fried foods: chicken strips, fried fish, french fries, onion rings, etc.
- Refined grains: crackers, desserts, some breakfast cereals, white bread, white rice, pasta, pancakes, waffles
- Processed meats: bacon, deli meats, hot dogs, salami, smoked meats
- Candy and other sweets
- Sugary beverages: fruit juice, regular soda and energy drinks, and sugar-sweetened coffee or tea
- Alcohol in excess
Foods rich in added sugar and saturated fats like fried foods, refined, grains, and processed meats are pro-inflammatory and may lower vagal tone.
The bottom line
The vagus nerve runs from the brain to the gut and helps control several crucial functions throughout the body.
Low vagal tone due to nerve damage or dysfunction can affect your digestion, mood, and cardiovascular system.
While there’s no specific vagus nerve diet, several foods may support vagus nerve healthy by promoting a healthy gut.