Vagus Nerve Diet: What to Eat for Healthy Vagal Tone

Vagus Nerve Diet: What to Eat for Healthy Vagal Tone

Support the Vagus Nerve Using Nutrition and Lifestyle Changes

Key Takeaways

  • There’s no definitive “vagus nerve diet” when you compare it to how we would describe a keto diet or Paleo diet.
  • An anti-inflammatory diet that generally supports overall health and wellness is likely supportive for vagus nerve health as well.
  • Ensuring adequate sodium and choline intake and avoiding trans fats are good nutritional rules to support vagus nerve function.
Couple happily preparing their vagus nerve diet

Can you influence the activity of your vagus nerve through what you eat and drink? The vagus nerve, literally translated from Latin as “the wandering nerve,” connects the brain to the heart, lungs, and GI tract, among other key organs and systems in the body. 

When it comes to how your diet affects the vagus nerve and vagal tone — how well your vagus nerve communicates with these organs and systems — we don’t have a lot of scientific data available yet. Most of the current research on therapeutic intervention for the vagus nerve focuses on electrical vagal stimulation over natural treatments like a vagus nerve diet.

Fortunately, what we do know is that dietary choices that are generally good for your health seem to also benefit vagal tone and support a healthy vagus nerve. We can also infer that diets that specifically promote good gut health may improve vagal tone, since the vagus nerve can sense inflammation and microbial metabolites (like butyrate) in the gut.

In this article, we’ll discuss why the vagus nerve is important for health and wellbeing, what a vagus nerve diet might include, the relationship between the vagus nerve and gut health, and a few other methods for improving vagal tone (beyond diet). 

What Does the Vagus Nerve Do and Why Is It Important for Health? 

The vagus nerve has many functions and, as part of the central nervous system (CNS), affects many other organs and systems of the body. As a quick summary, the vagus nerve: 

  • Largely controls the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” state)
  • Connects the brain to the gut and vice versa
  • Senses and is able to inhibit inflammation in the body
  • Regulates internal organ functions like heart rate, blood pressure, airway diameter, respiration, and other autonomic (involuntary) processes [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
  • Regulates reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, and swallowing [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
  • Initiates digestion after detecting the presence of nutrients in the gut.

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, extending from the lowest part of the brainstem all the way down through the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal system. The vagus nerve is the main part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), carrying 75% of all parasympathetic nerve fibers in the body. 

The PNS is responsible for the “rest and digest” state, where the body is able to conserve energy and calmly operate bodily functions like digestion and urination [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. The PNS counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the “fight or flight” state.

Furthermore, the vagus nerve acts as a highway between the gut and the brain, and neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine that are produced in the gut travel along the vagus nerve to the brain. These neurotransmitters affect appetite control, pain sensations, mood, memory, and much more [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

The vagus nerve can also sense and tell the brain about inflammation occurring in the body, which can activate the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) and lead to the release of cortisol (stress hormone) from the adrenal glands [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. But not only can the vagus nerve sense inflammation, it can also inhibit inflammation in the body, via the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. 

This anti-inflammatory capability is part of the reason the vagus nerve has become a therapeutic target for healing conditions like IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and even epilepsy through vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. It’s possible that, as a main channel in the communication system between the brain and the body, improving vagal tone (vagus nerve function) could initiate lasting healing of chronic conditions and mood disorders. 

Fried eggs in a cast iron pan

Diet and Foods for Vagus Nerve Health

A literature review examined the role of nutrition on heart rate variability (HRV, an indirect way to measure vagal tone) and found the following associated with increased vagal tone [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids 
  • Mediterranean diet
  • Enriched yogurt
  • Pistachios
  • Probiotic foods/supplements
  • Polyphenol-rich red wine, but not spirits or beer
  • Adequate vitamin B12 
  • High-choline foods

This list is far from definitive, but it gives us some idea of the food intake that might be beneficial for vagus nerve activity. The main thing to note is that many of these foods and nutrients are typically already part of a healthy anti-inflammatory diet, so there’s no need to go out of your way to incorporate specific foods for the vagus nerve as long as you are already prioritizing a nutrient-rich, diverse, colorful diet. 

That being said, it’s worth elaborating on high-choline foods. Acetylcholine is the primary neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system and helps the vagus nerve carry out its many functions. Choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, can be found in several food sources, and consuming more of these foods may help improve vagal tone. High-choline foods include [8]:

  • Eggs
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Organ meats
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Red potatoes
  • Kidney beans
  • Quinoa.

Sodium Intake and Vagal Tone

Interestingly, a nonrandomized clinical trial found that low sodium intake was associated with decreased vagal tone, and high sodium intake increased HRV/vagal tone. Those who were more sensitive to salt (as measured by increased blood pressure after consuming sodium) had higher vagal tone than those who weren’t sensitive to salt [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

This isn’t necessarily to say that you should drastically increase your salt intake, but it may be worth investigating if your intake is currently too low. Salt has long been demonized in Western medicine, but sodium is an important electrolyte required for nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and water balance in the body. We can’t and shouldn’t avoid it completely. 

Foods to Avoid for Healthy Vagal Tone

There hasn’t been much scientific study done on what foods impair the vagus nerve, but a literature review did find that trans fat consumption was associated with decreased HRV/vagal tone [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Consuming high amounts of trans fat is also associated with weight gain and obesity, impaired cardiovascular health, metabolic dysfunction, and more.

You’ll find trans fat in all of the foods you already know are bad for you: processed foods, high-fat foods, fast food, fried foods, processed baked goods, non-dairy coffee creamer, microwave popcorn, etc. 

Vagus nerve diet: illustration of the brain and neurons

Choose a Gut-Healthy Diet to Support the Vagus Nerve

We know that the vagus nerve has a huge impact on gut function and vice versa. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut and regulates digestion, gastrointestinal motility, and digestive enzyme secretion [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. In turn, neurotransmitters are produced in the gut, which are sent along the vagus nerve to the brain to signal changes in pain level, memory, and mood, among other things [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. The vagus nerve can also sense the presence of inflammation and nutrients in the gut [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

What we don’t know for sure yet is whether poor gut health leads to reduced vagal activity or the reverse, reduced vagal activity leading to poor gut health. It’s possible that both are true — for some people, poor gut health (inflammation due to poor diet, infection, etc.) leads to a lower-functioning vagus nerve, perhaps resulting in issues with motility or mood. For others, perhaps chronic stress dysregulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve, leading to gut issues. 

However, given the close connection between the two, we can infer that diets and foods that are good for gut health may also contribute to vagus nerve health. 

We’ve written extensively about diets for gut health and healing from conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). These different types of diets include: 

We generally recommend the Paleo diet as the first-line option for improving your gut health, since it’s the least restrictive while still eliminating common allergenic and inflammation-triggering foods. If you’re looking for a vagus nerve diet, Paleo may be a good place to start. 

Specific gut-healthy foods that may also improve vagal tone include antioxidant, mineral, and polyphenol-rich produce like blueberries, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and colorful root veggies; healthy fats like olive oil and avocado; and beverages like coffee and green tea. Many of the “choline foods” we listed above are great for gut health too. 

Probiotic supplements can also help to support a healthy gut (and a healthy vagal tone). 

Other Methods to Improve Vagal Tone

Alongside diet, there are many other practices that may help improve vagal tone and regulate the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Vagus Nerve Diet: What to Eat for Healthy Vagal Tone - Ways%20to%20Increase%20Vagal%20Tone Landscape L

Singing

A nonrandomized clinical trial found that singing, humming, and chanting all increased HRV/vagal tone in a group of healthy 18-year-olds [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. In addition to the vocal exercise itself, researchers hypothesized that the deliberate breath control involved in the activity also modulated HRV. They also noted that music is known to increase the “happy” hormone oxytocin, improving mental health and decreasing feelings of stress and anxiety, so this could also be a factor in strengthening vagal tone. 

Whichever way you look at it, singing is good for you and may improve your vagus nerve function. 

Laughter

Studies show that laughter, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a significant effect on improving mood, HRV, and anxiety. Even among organ transplant patients, a program involving laughter, stretching exercises, clapping, and meditation for 20 minutes contributed to an immediate improvement in mood and a long-term improvement in anxiety [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Walking

Simply walking has been shown to improve HRV in a study of 33 adults who were assigned to a walking program for five days per week over 12 weeks. Compared to a group that performed their usual daily activities, the walking group had significant improvements in HRV/vagal tone [16 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

Yoga

In a study of 77 patients with ulcerative colitis in remission, patients either did yoga for a period of 12 weeks or were given written self-care advice. At the end of the study, the yoga group had significant improvements in both disease activity and quality of life [17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Given the connection between the PNS and gut health, the improvement in disease activity likely indicates an improvement in vagal tone. 

Another randomized, controlled trial found that people who regularly practiced yoga had a higher HRV, better vagal tone, and speedier recovery from a major stressor vs. those who didn’t practice yoga [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Meditation and Breathing Exercises

Meditation and diaphragmatic (deep) breathing can be incredibly helpful to strengthen vagal tone and restore the parasympathetic response. 

A study performed on 47 healthy college students divided the students into four groups and asked the students to slow their breathing at different rates. All of the groups improved their HRV, with the greatest improvement in the group taking 5.5 breaths per minute [19 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

A literature review included slow-breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and loving-kindness meditation in a compilation of natural interventions to improve HRV and vagal tone [20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Fiber-rich raw ingredients on a table

Bottom Line on the Vagus Nerve Diet

While there’s no specific vagus nerve diet, many diets that support the gut and your overall health and wellness should be considered supportive for vagus nerve health. The important thing is to focus on getting a wide variety of healthy foods that provide plenty of antioxidants, micronutrients, healthy fats, and so on. 

There are also many other supportive strategies like deep breathing, yoga, and even laughter that can strengthen the vagus nerve and help your body operate from the rest and digest state. 

If you’re interested in learning more about vagal tone and how it might be affecting your health, or you want to work on nervous system balance and gut health with an experienced practitioner, reach out to us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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