If you feel exhausted or stressed to the point of experiencing burnout, you’re not alone. Feelings of physical exhaustion and mental weariness (aka burnout) have risen 38 percent since prepandemic levels. But rather than blame office politics and job stress, there may be another reason it's hard to muster energy and enthusiasm for the tasks at hand: Your vagus nerve may not be functioning as well as it could be, and the reason is your diet.

The vagus nerve is the control center for your resting metabolic functions, and a critical passageway for signals from the brain to the gut and the gut to the brain. Eat badly and your gut sends signals that there is need to stress, that this added sugar and unneeded fat has to be used for something epic, like escaping danger, or you may as well lie down and go to sleep and store all those extra calories for when you do have to run for your life.

When you're stressed, that also sends a signal along the Vegas nerve to load up on extra fuel for the fight or flight ahead. In both cases, the Vegas nerve is the superhighway for these signals. And according to a recent research paper published The BMJ, food and mood have been found to have an even greater impact on each other than previously thought.

The researchers looked at how diet and nutrition affected mental wellbeing and found that what you eat directly impacts vagus nerve health, which affects the health and function of the central systems in your body. This is known as the gut-brain connection. And the passage way works in both directions since when you are stressed you are likely to reach for all the wrong foods. Read on to find out which foods you can add to your diet to boost vagus nerve function and help ensure good overall health.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) — your body’s ability to “rest and digest” — which also plays a critical role in the gut-brain connection, and ultimately your health, wellbeing and mood. The vagus nerve consists of two nerves (left and right) that send signals between your brain, heart, and digestive system.

An impressive 75 percent of the nerve fibers in your parasympathetic nervous system pass along the vagus nerve. These fibers are what transport information between your gut and brain, which means what you eat has an overwhelming impact on how your brain functions and ultimately your mental outlook.

“The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for many important body functions, including immune system [response], digestion, mood control, and heart rate,” explains Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian. “These are involuntary functions that the PNS [regulates] with the help of healthy vagus nerves.”

How does diet affect mood?

“Some of the most notable signs of vagus nerve issues include brain fog, muscle aches, fatigue, and headache,” Best adds. In addition, if your vagus nerve isn’t functioning properly, you may experience other symptoms depending on the cause and location of the nerve issue, including abdominal pain, bloating, acid reflux, changes in heart rate, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.

“Damage or poor function of the vagus nerve can cause gastroparesis. This refers to food not moving through the intestines during digestion. Gastroparesis is typically not life-threatening but can lead to serious complications, including dehydration, malnutrition, and a complete blockage of food from leaving the stomach.”

Fainting is another condition that can arise from poor vagal nerve health. This occurs when a vagus nerve connected to your stress hormones overreact under certain conditions — extreme heat, anxiety, hunger, pain, or chronic stress — causing blood pressure to drop rapidly, leading to dizziness and faintness. Your body pulls all the oxygen into the muscles, and puts itself on the floor as a way of protecting your brain from further potential harm.

Interestingly, stimulating the vagus nerve in a clinical setting can provide therapeutic effects. Research has demonstrated that vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) through manual or electric stimuli effectively treats various symptoms, including epilepsy, depression, heart disease, inflammation, and metabolic disorders. A 2021 study published in The Lancet concluded that stimulation of the vagus nerve with an implanted device showed significant improvement in rheumatoid arthritis severity.

Ensuring your vagus nerve is functioning optimally is vital for good health. The good news is that you can improve your vagus nerve health holistically with the foods you eat.

Foods for a Healthy Outlook

It’s been said a thousand times, but it’s worth repeating: Diet plays a critical role in your overall health, vitality, and bodily functions. For example, a nutrient that has a significant impact on vagus nerve health and function is tryptophan — an essential amino acid that’s critical in the gut-brain connection. (There are 9 essential amino acids that are not created within the body, and must be acquired in food.)

Tryptophan aids in communication between the gut and brain via the vagus nerve pathway, and ultimately helps lower inflammation throughout the body that may otherwise interfere with immune system working optimally.

Plant-based foods high in tryptophan include:

Eating probiotic-rich, fermented foods, are also beneficial for the gut-brain connection, and  promote the growth of healthy bacteria, which research shows can activate the vagus nerve. Those foods include:

Improve Mood and Energy

Besides adding more  tryptophan-rich plant foods or fermented foods to your diet, you can implement other healthy lifestyle habits to boost vagus nerve health.

For example yoga, meditation, and breath work are correlated with the vagus nerve’s “capacity to regulate stress responses,” according to a study in the Frontiers In Psychiatry. These practices “likely contribute to resilience and mitigate mood and anxiety symptoms.” To reduce stress and boost immunity, try these three simple morning rituals.

As with most other health conditions, reducing inflammation is key to good vagus nerve health. Holistic approaches to fighting inflammation include eliminating or limiting sugar intake, maintaining a healthy weight, taking probiotics, and practicing intermittent fasting. These simple steps can help regulate vagus nerve function and reduce inflammation to help bring the nervous systems into balance for optimal health.

Bottom Line: The Vagus Nerve Is Essential to Gut-Brain Connection and Mood.

The vagus nerve serves as the communication pathway between the gut and brain, so improving its function helps boost mental wellbeing, energy and overall resilience. You can improve the health and function of your vagus nerve by eating a whole food plant-based diet (that includes fermented food and those rich in tryptophan), maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting refined sugar. These dietary changes will reduce inflammation, improve gut health, and positively impact overall mental health.

For more expert advice, check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition category

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