The name for the vagus nerve (VN) comes from the Latin meaning “wandering.” So-called because this longest of our cranial nerves branches out from both sides of our brain stem and weaves down the neck and into the internal organs of the torso. It’s really into everything.
This nerve bundle controls our parasympathetic nervous system. This part of our nervous system is often called the rest and digest system. As the vagus releases acetylcholine, it starts reversing the effects of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline you would have flooding your body if, say, you were trying to outrun a saber-toothed tiger. This running away flight-or-flight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. Both together are called the Autonomic Nervous System, kind of our autopilot that runs the bodily functions we don’t consciously control, like our heart rates, breathing, and temperature control.
So, the vagus nerve’s function is to get this repairing and healing going. It slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes digestive muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. A healthy vagus sends messages that release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, that are calming. And that’s not all.
Here are a few of the VN’s vital jobs:
- The VN prevents inflammation. Too much inflammation is linked to many diseases and conditions. The network of nerve fibers from the vagus are on the lookout throughout your body. If too much inflammation is signaled – such as the presence of cytokines – a red alert calls for an anti-inflammatory response from the immune system.
- It transmits information between your gut and your brain. We hear a lot about the importance of the microbiome – the ecosystem in your gut. This gut-to-brain connection is essential in controlling inflammation, detecting pathogens, and regulating mood and stress. The vagus controls the muscles that move your food along its route and affects whether you feel hungry or full.
- The VN is also talking to your heart. Through electrical impulses, the VN regulates your heartbeat as acetylcholine is released and slows the pulse.
This Chill Out System is Vital
Since your vagus nerve is the primary communication highway between the brain, heart, immune and hormonal systems, and digestive organs, any disruption in its healing and restorative functions can lead to negative physical and mental health outcomes. Such as:
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Depression, Anxiety
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other digestive problems
- Cardiovascular disease
- Migraine, cluster headaches
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Swallowing and breathing problems
Electrical Stimulation of the Vagus Nerve – Bioelectronics
Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, president of The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research,
was the first to record research showing that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. As incredible as it sounds, electrical implants now are used with excellent results in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and also hemorrhagic shock, a serious inflammatory syndrome.
This growing field of study using vagal nerve stimulation to treat inflammation and epilepsy is called bioelectronics. It has the potential for treating many illnesses without medications and their side effects.
Improve Your Own Vagal Tone
When the VN communication is impaired, sensory signals from internal organs back to the brain can be scrambled. Organs rely on this brain communication to stay healthy. A healthy vagus nerve is said to have good “vagal tone.” Here’s even more evidence of the body mind connection and how mindfulness and meditation have beneficial biologic effects.
Here are ways to stimulate and tone your own vagus nerve.
- Slow diaphragmatic breathing. Through the nose only, breathe in slowly 8 counts, hold 8, exhale completely 16 counts.
- Take up humming or chanting. The VN is connected to the vocal cords, humming stimulates it, as does repeating the sound “OM.”
- Speaking, singing, and laughing also helps your vagal tone.
- Washing your face with cold water. Cold water on your face and neck stimulates the vagus in a positive way.
- Exercise and stretching.
- Massage. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your
throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve, as can areas on the feet.
All ways to help your body perform at its best, and prevent or recover from stress, injury, or illness.