So guys, there is this thing and its called the vagus nerve.
What is it to me….you make ask? Why in the world do I need to know about this?
Well, what if I told you that you could reduce inflammation with this beauty. What if I told you that could reduce chronic pain…! What if I told you that you could improve digestion, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce fatigue, food sensitivities and brain fog…! This beauty of a nerve is related entirely to all of these morbidities and by making a few tweaks, major health improvements are the inevitable outcome!
Vagus (no not Vegas!) is a Latin term and means ‘to wander’ and the word ‘nerve’, well that’s pretty self explanatory. So, together we make a wandering nerve!! This is exactly what the vagus nerve does. It wanders throughout the whole body, like a vagabond – through our digestive system, our cardiovascular system, our nervous system; connecting important visceral organs on its path. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our bodies and it influences pretty much all major organs, hence its super importance and hence, why we need to ensure its efficient function on a day-to-day basis.
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve (aka Cranial Nerve X) and forms part of the parasympathetic nervous system and in a less scientific format, the rest and digest system. It is the commander of many unconscious bodily processes such as maintaining heart rate and digestion.
So what does it actually do…?
Brain: The vagus nerve helps control feelings of anxiety and depression. The vagus nerve works in a similar format to ‘Yin and Yang’ in this respect. When we feel this way, our sympathetic nervous system is in play. We feel stressed and our fight-or-flight response is heightened. The vagal response from the parasympathetic pathway, however, acts to reduce these feelings, evoking a sense of calmness and relaxation. The vagal response reduces feelings of stress and also reduces the symptoms associated with it, such as increased heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. In a little more depth, stimulation of the vagus nerve releases our feel good hormones – acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin and oxytocin. It acts directly on the parts of the brain that influence how we feel. See, its an incredibly smart cookie and is responsible for many systemic mind-body connections!
Gut: The vagus nerve in this location helps create better digestion. It acts to increase stomach acidity, allowing for more efficient enzyme function and therefore gut motility. Hence why, less vagal nerve interaction is associated with an increased risk of IBS-C (aka IBS with a tendency towards constipation), meaning less gut motility and less happy us! To get a little more science specific, the action of stimulating the vagus nerve releases more histamine within the cells of stomach, aiding the release of stomach acid. The vagus nerve also helps to release the all important Intrinsic Factor, a glycoprotein needed for the efficient absorption of Vitamin B12. It also induces post-prandial satiety due to its quick transmission from gut to brain as a direct response of food intake!
Liver, Kidneys and Pancreas: Here, the vagus nerve plays an important part in overall blood sugar balance. A hyperglycaemic response (i.e. high blood glucose level) produces an increase in vagal nerve activity in the pancreas and a suppression of the adrenal nerve. This causes an increase in insulin which acts like a lock and key system to remove glucose from the blood. A hypoglycaemic response, on the other hand, activates the adrenal system and suppresses the pancreatic system. This reduces the amount of circulating insulin to allow for an increase in blood glucose level and therefore, a more balanced being. Vagal nerve stimulation also helps to filter the blood and lower blood pressure by releasing the important neurotransmitter dopamine which aids the excretion of sodium.
Heart: Like I touched on earlier, the vagus nerve helps to control heart rate and blood pressure. So much so that stimulation of the vagal nerve, has been show not reduce the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular-related illnesses.
Gallbladder and Bladder: The vagus nerve here helps in the release of bile, an incredibly important substance involved in the removal of toxins from the body and the breakdown of fat particles. In terms of the bladder, vagal stimulation causes urinary retention whereas a reduced vagal activity can cause more urinary frequency. However, this can also be due to a number of other important systems at play.
Tongue and Eyes: The vagus nerve is responsible for our ability to taste and the production of saliva as well as the release of tears.
In all target organs, vagal activation will act to reduce inflammation through the release of acetylcholine – which lessens the release of many pro-inflmamatory cytokines. However, when its activated more specifically in the spleen, the effects are felt more systematically.
So it makes sense why a low vagal tone results in the following problems and more:
- Reduced resistance to stress
- Poor absorption of B12
- Poor digestion
- Poor ability to reduce toxic load and reduce fat
- Frequent urination
- Poor ability to feel satiated
- Poor blood flow
- Increased risk of cardiovascular-related diseases
- High heart rate and blood pressure
- Poor blood sugar level balance
In saying all that we are not some masters of the Ministry of Magic and we cannot consciously stimulate our own vagus nerves. However, we can do so indirectly and here I will investigate a few simple ways to do so:
- Cold water immersion post exercise: This action can quickly trick the vagal nerve into to reducing one’s heart rate whilst activating both the digestive and immune systems. When the body adjusts to cold temperatures, our sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight or flight) reduces its action whilst our parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. rest and digest) increases. This action is mediated by the activity of the vagus nerve. So much so that any kind of acute or sudden cold exposure will increase one’s activation of the vagus nerve.
- Deep breathing: The very action of deep abdominal breathing or holding your breath for 4-8 counts will active your vagus nerve. Breathing approximately 5-7 per minutes by the average adult will do wonders for anxiety and blood pressure as it acts to reducing our sympathetic nervous system and increase our parasympathetic nervous system. This reduces symptoms of nervousness and anxiety and induces cardioprotective benefits.
- Massages: Massaging our feet and our carotid sinus (in our necks) can both stimulate vagal nerve action. Specifically, the carotid sinus can help reduce the prevalence of seizures whilst the feet can provide cardioprotective benefits in the way of reducing heart rate and blood pressure and therefore cardiovascular disease risk. Pressure massages, on the other hand, have been shown to help preterm infants in gaining weight due to the stimulation of the gut, enhancing its digestive and absorptive functions.
- Laughing: It has long been said that laughter is the best medicine! Well, it could not be more true of a statement! Not only can it stimulate the vagus nerve, it also exerts cognitive benefits as well as protects against cardiovascular disease!
- Singing and Chanting ‘Om’: Well you need to start whipping out a tune or two in the shower as it seems that singing exerts relaxation benefits as well as increasing vagus function. It also increases oxytocin, our ‘love’ hormone. Chanting ‘Om’ also helps put us in a relaxed state and increases vagus nerve activity in the process.
So its plain to see the many benefits of vagus nerve stimulation – improved cognition, reduce inflammation, a more relaxed being and so much more.
If you feel like you are experiencing any of the above, perhaps check in with your nutritionist or health practitioner so see if a few dietary and lifestyle tweaks can be made to get you on your way to optimal health and wellbeing!
As always thanks for reading and any questions, please comment below!