If you have been a follower of the blog for awhile now—you know that I can’t get enough of the vagus nerve. Toning this nerve can produce lifechanging results, which include better digestion and motility.
And there are so many ways that you can strengthen this nerve. A quick google search can produce 100s of ways to stimulate the nerve. Many of these strategies are super helpful like meditation, breath work, cold showers, yoga, humming/singing and more. I have used many of these strategies with my clients with great success.
But, there is one absolutely crucial vagus nerve stimulator that is rarely mentioned. Many of the above strategies may not work if this factor is not prioritized, because without it—the nervous system can never become regulated.
So, what is this mystery ingredient for a healthy vagus nerve? CONNECTION!
Connecting and relating to people helps your nervous system feel safe—without it the nervous system will be dysregulated even if you are meditating every single day or doing breath work. Connection has to be a priority when you are moving through your SIBO journey.
The importance of connection came up in my recent podcast discussion with Dr. Jennifer Franklin, a psychologist that specializes in IBS. Please take a listen by clicking here.
Dr. Franklin explains the importance of connection:
“There’s a branch of the vagus nerve called the ventral vagal system and that is part of our autonomic nervous system which is all about connection. It’s through connection that we survive as human beings. Baby’s die if they are unconnected to adults. Connection is really central to developing a healthy nervous system.”
We have evolved to connect with people! And if you are lone wolfing it—it can be impossible to find nervous system balance and to optimize your vagus nerve.
Connection lights us up and gives up pleasure when we are in “flow state” as Dr. Franklin puts it. It feels really good to connect and relate with others. Connection is the magic sauce that you didn’t know your vagus nerve needed.
I find that many of my clients become more disconnected when they have SIBO. I know I became a hermit when I had SIBO. I was often skipping social events for fear of symptoms or to avoid the awkwardness of avoiding food/bringing my own food.
With COVID restrictions over the last year, we are all potentially connection deficient. Some of my clients had clear increases of symptoms due to COVID and one major reason is due to lack of connection.
But, as the pandemic continues to improve, you should prioritize connection again. Even if that means taking baby steps like calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. You could meet a friend for a walk or a cup of tea/coffee. You could make a concerted effort to avoid screens at night so you can have a convo with your spouse, kids or roommates.
I with the lockdowns that I really missed my gym community. I didn’t realize how much until I went back in a few weeks ago. My gym community helps fill a connection deficit that comes naturally due to me working from home. I always leave feeling energized and like my cup was filled.
It is also worth mentioning that the quality of your relationships seems to have an effect specifically on gut function. Bad relationships will lock you in a fight or flight state that can keep you stuck. For instance, Ohio State researchers found that married couples that fought “nastily” exhibited leaky gut due to those fights. The researchers pointed to nervous system for mediating the leaky gut reaction.
If you are in a relationship that feels more toxic, amending this situation could be crucial for overall function and for repairing your gut. That could mean couples counseling, setting boundaries or taking a break from the relationship. Try your best to interact with as many people that uplift you and bring you joy as you can.
Connection isn’t always about people either—you can connect with nature, pets, hobbies/passions, religion/spirituality and more.
Connection does not have to involve engaging with a person—you can connect with anything that is going to make you feel good.
An important step in my healing journey was joining a basketball team again. I was always so nervous to play b-ball because I was struggling with energy issues. I was concerned that my body would not be able to handle it. But, I made a deal with myself. I would play, but I would check in with my body and take breaks when needed.
My nerves eased the second I stepped on the court. The gym felt like a comforting warm hug. It lit me up at a time when I was pretty miserable symptom wise. I needed to connect with basketball because it provided me with pleasure.
Pleasure comes through connection to activities, people, pets and other things that we enjoy. And pleasure can be person specific, so make sure you are connecting with what ignites you versus what ignites your spouse or best friend. Dr. Franklin talked about pleasure on our pod and said, “the whole vagus nerve is responsive to pleasure.”
Finding pleasure is a rarely discussed requirement for conquering nervous system dysfunction that drives gut dysfunction. Prioritizing pleasure is crucial because skipping it can be easy when you are not feeling well.
As Dr. Franklin stated, “when you are used to feeling bad all the time, your orientation gets focused on the bad.” This focus on the problem (your gut symptoms/the SIBO in general) can actually keep you in a stressed out state.
Focusing on finding pleasure through connection can help put your body at ease even when you are still managing your SIBO or IBS. That doesn’t mean that your symptoms are not valid, but when you are having them—try to connect with something that will make you feel better. That doesn’t mean that you will be perfect after listening to that song you love, but it will make you a bit better then how you felt when the song was not playing.
My favorite feel good strategy during the day is to take 5-10 minute breaks to pet my pooch, Chip. Giving him loves makes me happy even when I am having a bad day.
Don’t just sing/hum to repair your nervous system! Find times to connect with the people, places and things that bring you joy and pleasure to find true nervous system balance.