If you suffer from poor brain function or chronic gut health complaints, you may benefit from performing regular coffee enemas to improve communication between the brain and the gut.
Central to communication between the brain and the gut — called the gut-brain axis — is the vagus nerve. This is a long, meandering nerve that extends from the brainstem down to the major organs.
In functional medicine, we use a variety of exercises to improve vagal nerve function and thus communication between the brain and the gut. However, one of the best is the coffee enema.
The idea of doing an enema makes some people squeamish at first. Once you learn how great they can be at improving the gut-brain axis, you may find this motivates you to give it a try.
Many people report they feel more relaxed and clearheaded afterwards. This is likely due to stimulation of the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” arm of the autonomic nervous system.
How the brain-gut axis governs gut health
The vagus nerve meanders from the base of the brain to the major organs, serving as a communication pathway to and from the brain.
This pathway is known as the gut-brain axis or the brain-gut axis, and is bi-directional, meaning communication travels in both directions. The brain talks the gut, and the gut talks to the brain.
Through the vagus nerve, the brain plays a major role in gut health, including:
- Movement of food through the intestines (motility)
- Release of digestive enzymes to break down food
- Regulation of blood flow that carries oxygen, nutrients, and immune cells to support gut health and repair
How poor brain health leads to poor gut health
Poor brain function leads to poor gut health. When the brain ages, degenerates, is injured, or otherwise becomes impaired, total output to the vagus nerve decreases. As such, the organs do not receive enough neurological input to function properly. Think of poor water flow through a hose.
This can cause such gut health problems as:
- Difficulty digesting foods
- Constipation or irregular bowel movements
- Bloating and gas
- Abdominal distention and discomfort after meals
- Food intolerances
- Difficulty swallowing supplements or large bites of food
- A gag reflex that is either too sensitive or under active
One of the earliest signs of poor brain function is poor gut health
Frequently, the gut can be one of the first places poor brain function manifests.
Declining memory, an inability to find words, difficulty learning new things, and brain fog are often accompanied by increasing difficulty digesting foods, constant bloating and gas, or alternating constipation and diarrhea.
In fact, Parkinson’s disease has been found to affect the gut before the brain. Chronic constipation occurs years before a Parkinson’s patient develops tremors. Medicine is now acknowledging chronic constipation as a possible early warning sign of Parkinson’s.
If your gut symptoms are getting worse, you need to take your brain health seriously.
It may not be Parkinson’s disease, but it certainly suggests possible early brain degeneration and declining function of the gut-brain axis.
How poor gut health can worsen brain health
Just as poor brain health can impact the gut, so can poor gut health worsen brain function.
The gut uses chemical messengers to send messages to the brain along the vagus nerve. These chemicals influence the brain’s immune system and its neurotransmitter activity.
When the gut is healthy, these messenger proteins can enhance memory and learning. However, when the gut is inflamed and unhealthy, these messengers are linked to:
- Depression and anxiety
- Parkinson’s disease
- Memory loss
Have you ever become bloated after eating a certain food, and then noticed you’re also suddenly irritable, depressed, or brain fogged? This is an example of how your gut can affect brain chemistry.
I write more about the vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis in my brain book.
Exercise your vagus nerve with coffee enemas
In functional medicine we use a variety of exercises to make the vagus nerve stronger. Like muscles, neurons need constant stimulation to stay healthy and strong.
If you break your arm and wear a cast, those muscles shrink within a few weeks from reduced activity. Neurons are the same. Without regular “exercise” they lose function.
Vagal exercises are easy to perform at home. I commonly prescribe these exercises to my patients who have poor vagal tone and gut-brain axis failure:
- Gargling aggressively several times a day
- Stimulating the gag reflex with a tongue depressor on the back of the tongue several times a day
- Singling loudly several times a day
- Coffee enemas several times a week
The first three of these exercises activate tissues in the back of the throat that are connected to the vagus nerve.
How do coffee enemas stimulate the vagus nerve?
When the enema distends the intestines, this activates the vagus pathway.
I also tell my patients to hold the enema to the point where they have to work hard, like holding a plank, as this powerfully stimulates the vagus.
Start with a diluted mixture and gradually increase the strength of the coffee. Stronger coffee activates cholinergic receptors, nerves that the brain chemical acetylcholine activates. It also stimulates nicotinic receptors. Activating these receptors stimulates the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Most people are in sympathetic dominance these days. This is the “fight or flight” arm of the nervous system. Activating the vagus nerve and hence the parasympathetic nervous system enhances not only gut health but also the ability to relax and focus.
Many people notice coffee enemas improve bowel function over time
Many people notice their bowel function improves over time and they can wean off the coffee enemas.
This is because the enemas improved their vagal system pathways.
Unfortunately, brain degeneration outpaces the ability to make permanent changes in some people. In this case, coffee enemas can be used to remedy constipation, which raises the risk for bacterial buildup, leaky gut, and toxicity.
What about the caffeine?
If you are sensitive to caffeine, coffee enemas likely won’t be a concern for you. While on rare occasions caffeine-sensitive people feel an effect, studies show that the bioavailability of caffeine during enemas is 3.5 times less than that of drinking coffee.
If you are sensitive to caffeine, start with 1/2 teaspoon of coffee grounds in the solution earlier in the day and see how your body responds.
How to perform a coffee enema to improve vagus nerve function
Timing and setting of the coffee enema
Try to do the enema when you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour.
To make it more comfortable and more effective, make sure to time it just after your daily bowel movement.
Coffee enema preparation
Make one to two cups of organic coffee (non-organic can contain toxic pesticides).
Some people can handle up to 2 TBS of coffee grounds per enema, but if you are new to enemas or highly sensitive to caffeine, start with 1/2 teaspoon and slowly increase the concentration as you’re able.
The stronger the coffee, the more stimulating it is to the vagus. Filtered or distilled water is best.
Boil the coffee for about 10 minutes and strain out the grounds.
Let the coffee cool to room temperature
Make sure the coffee is cool enough to put your entire hand in the coffee for a full five seconds comfortably.
The tissues inside the intestines are very sensitive to temperature; never use hot coffee!
Which coffee to use
- Use organic coffee to avoid exposure to pesticides.
- Avoid decaf, flavored, very oily, and light or gold roasts.
- Avoid instant coffee, as most tested showed presence of gluten. However, I have my busier patients use Starbucks instant coffee. It is the only instant brand we’re aware of that is gluten-free, although it’s not organic.
- You can find coffee online made specifically for coffee enemas.
If you can, grind your own beans right before the enema. Oils in pre-ground coffee can be oxidized and go rancid. If you use pre-ground beans, store them in the fridge to keep the oils fresher.
Instructions for performing a coffee enema
1. Lay in the tub or spill-proof the floor
As a beginner “spills” can happen, so perform your enema in the bathtub or with a towel under you to protect the floor.
2. Make sure the hose clip is closed
Make sure the enema bag’s hose clip is closed (keep it at the end near your body) and fill the bag with the cooled coffee.
3. Release air from the tube
Release any air from the tube by holding the bag over the sink with the tip slightly lower and letting liquid flow until the air bubbles are gone.
4. Hang the enema bag or bucket 2–4 feet above you
Hang the enema bag or bucket so it’s 2 to 4 feet above where you will be laying down. The end of the hose must reach your body easily. But if you hang it too high gravity may produce more pressure than is comfortable.
5. Lubricate the enema tip and insert into the rectum
Lubricate the plastic hose tip with a lubricant such as KY jelly or olive oil. Traditionally people have been instructed to lie on their right side so the coffee solution can better access the portal vein to the liver, however experiment with whichever side works best for you. Fold your knees toward your abdomen and gently insert the tube a couple inches into the rectum.
6. Use the hose clamp to slowly release the enema solution
Release the solution slowly from the tube into your body, controlling the flow with the hose clamp. You may experience some cramping and urgency to eliminate as the liquid moves up into the intestines.
If you cramp, close the clamp to stop the flow, and take some deep breaths. Cramping typically passes quickly. Once the cramp is gone, gently open the clamp again.
The presence of gas is the main reason some people have trouble holding a coffee enema. If you have gas that is making it difficult to hold the enema, you can leave the enema tip inserted — the gas will flow out the tube and this makes it easier to hold the enema.
4. Hold for 5 to 15 minutes — working to hold it in activates the vagus
You may have urges to have a bowel movement, but relax and hold the enema for 5 to 15 minutes. Working to hold in the liquid is what most benefits the vagus nerve. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t hold the liquid for long in the beginning and experience leaks. It’s quite common and you will get better at it.
For some, leaving the plastic enema tip in the rectum assists in preventing leaks.
If it is easy to hold in, this means you can strengthen the concentration of coffee next time.
Take in as much of the liquid as your body will allow. Two cups is an average, everyone is different, and your ability to hold more will improve with practice.
Once the time has passed, move to the toilet and release the liquid.
5. Post-enema cleanup and care
Separate the enema bag and hose, rinse them thoroughly, and wash the plastic tube tip with hot water and soap.
If you use a stainless steel enema bucket, wash it with soap and water to prevent the acidity of the coffee from degrading the metal.
Some people like to run some hydrogen peroxide through the bag and hose after washing it. If you do so, make sure to rinse it well with water afterward so no peroxide goes into your intestines the next time.
Hang the hose and bag/bucket in a warm dry place until they are completely dry. Store in a dry location.
Tips and common issues with coffee enemas
To best activate the vagus nerve, the enema should be very difficult to hold so that you suppress the urge as long as you can.
If you are sensitive to coffee, use weaker coffee so you can hold it longer.
As you become more experienced with enemas, use stronger coffee so that it is still challenging.
Clearing the bowels first with a water enema
Some people prefer to start with a water enema to clear the intestines so they can hold the coffee longer.
A mild saline solution of 1 tsp salt to 2 cups water is ideal. However, you can also use filtered or distilled water. It is best to avoid tap water.
Learn more about vagus nerve health in my brain book and food sensitivity course
I write in more depth about vagal nerve function in my brain book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working? In addition, I invite you to check out my online brain health course, Save Your Brain — the Six Week Rescue Plan. The course guides you step-by-step through the same brain health strategies that I use with my patients.
If you are on an elimination diet for chronic illness, have leaky gut, or suffer from unexplained food intolerances, I invite you to take my self-paced online course, The 3D Immune Tolerance Program: Steps to Restoring Oral Tolerance. In the course you will learn what oral tolerance is, what causes its loss, and the role it plays in recovering from or managing chronic illness. You will then learn how to improve your oral tolerance so you can eat a wider variety of foods, and what factors can thwart attempts to recover oral tolerance.