The Vagus Nerve. your nervous system’s conductor.

This post discusses the vagus nerve and its influence over the parasympathetic nervous system and your health

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The Vagus nerve has gotten a lot of press over the last few years. Medical researchers have discovered that stimulating this nerve has the potential to lower blood pressure, reduce pain, and improve immunity among other benefits. Yogis, neurologists and mental health professionals are also discovering the unique role this nerve may have in our ability to communicate and feel safe in the world.  

Can one nerve really do all that!?  

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

Your Vagus nerve is the main messenger for your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).  We know the PNS as the rest-and-digest system. It regulates your heart rate, breath rate and enables you to digest and eliminate your food. In emergency situations, it can slow down your organs to conserve energy and keep you alive. 

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is known as the fight-or-flight system. When under threat, you activate this system to run, defend yourself, and survive. When not under threat, you use this system to play, exercise or to move.  

We need both systems to function effectively and maintain homeostasis.

The Vagus Nerve

You have a vagus nerve on either side of your body. They originate in your brainstem with connections to the face, neck, chest, heart, diaphragm and abdominal cavity. Vagus means “wanderer” in Latin, which is fitting because of its expansive connections throughout the body.  

It’s a mixed nerve, which means it has bidirectional control to and from the brain.  Eighty percent of this nerve is afferent, so it’s mostly concerned about conveying what’s going on in your environment and your body to your brain for interpretation.  It’s like a conductor for your PNS.

It has a ventral and dorsal portion. The ventral (front) portion is involved in what researcher Stephen Porges calls the “social engagement system.” It connects your heart and lungs to your facial muscles and is unique to mammals. This portion of the nerve is myelinated, so impulses move quickly, influencing facial expression and theoretically influencing your sense of connection, safety, and love. 

Looking at the illustration of the nerve and its connections to your heart, lungs and face, it’s hard to argue how excising it would abolish all sense of humanity.  

The dorsal (back) portion of the nerve is unmyelinated and works slower. It controls functions like digestion and elimination that are put off when your life depends on it. This portion exists in all living creatures.  

Vagal Tone

Increased vagal tone means that you can recover faster from stressful situations.  

When your vagus nerve (s) works well, your parasympathetic nervous system does its job. That means that your body can recover from life’s stressors and you can more readily engage in the world instead of living in a survival state.  

Increased vagal tone is associated with higher heart rate variability (heart resilience), positive emotions, and better health.  

As a conductor, your vagus nerve influences your mood, physiology, and your health.  Through nervous system regulation (setting the tempo by addressing the signs and symptoms of stress, i.e., shifting your nervous system from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state and increasing vagal tone) you gain control over your responses and your mood – making better music.  At least you’ll appreciate the noise and chaos your nerves can produce when you do nothing to “conduct” them. 

Ways to hack the vagus nerve

Much of the magic in healing physical and mental trauma and recovering from stressful events, lies in nervous system regulation, specifically mitigating sympathetic overload through the vagus nerve.   

 Below are five ways you can use the vagus nerve to conduct your nervous system and improve your mental and physical health. *

  1. Breathe slow and deep.  Slowing the breath down, especially on the exhale is a great way to reduce stress for most people.  By directing your breath to move deeper in your lungs with each breath, you effectively use your diaphragm. The diaphragm, when contracted,  physically and tonically stimulates the vagus nerve, reducing sympathetic dominance.   “Normal” breath rate is 12-14 breaths a minute.  Research shows that half of that is better for optimal health and resilience.  So slow and low is the way to go!
  2. Get moving. There are numerous studies that support the physical and mental health benefits of exercise.  Besides being an effective, healthy way to manage stress, aerobic exercise improves heart rate variability, a biomarker of parasympathetic activity and vagal tone.   
  3. Laugh and hang out with good people.  Laughter, (smiling) and social connection help to improve vagal tone.  It may feel difficult to laugh if you are under stress, but it’s important to find some pleasure in life.  Hang out with friends and connect to people in your life that make you feel good.  When you do more things that bring joy to your life, you will experience less stress, which makes it easier to laugh.  
  4.   Meditate.  Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions (among a host of other benefits).  One reason it works is by reducing stress.  Even the preparation for meditation includes all the things you should do to balance the go-go-go nature of life: slow down, release physical and mental tension, and focus attention. Meditation isn’t easy, especially if you are used to constant stress. If you want guidance, I recommend exploring some of the fantastic apps now available, such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer, to get started. 
  5. Sing, hum or repeat a mantra.  Vibration is a great way to divert thought and focus the mind.  Have you ever put your fingers in your ears as a defiant child while muttering “blahhhhhhh!”? If so, it was probably only once.  Singing, humming, or repeating a phrase works to stimulate the vagus nerve through its connections in the neck and throat.  There is an adult version of this called  Bee’s breath (a form of pranayama or breathing) and I shared a video on Vimeo if you want to check it out. Its my go-to when I can’t think straight, and now I know how it works – vagal tone!  

In summary, your vagus nerve is pretty special and deserves the press it’s getting. Why not use its powers to reset your nervous system? 

Let me know how it goes. 

*Yoga combines many of these things to improve vagal tone.  Stay tuned for the benefits of yoga in a future post!

Sources

  1. Houtveen J. H., Rietveld S., de Geus E. J. (2002). Contribution of tonic vagal modulation of heart rate, central respiratory drive, respiratory depth, and respiratory frequency to respiratory sinus arrhythmia during mental stress and physical exercise. Psychophysiology 39 427–436.
  2. Chambers A. S., Allen J. J. B. (2007). Cardiac vagal control, emotion, psychopathology, and health. Biol. Psychol. 74 113–115. 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.09.004
  3. Porges, S. The Polyvagal Perspective. Biol Psychol., 2007 Feb: 74(2): 116-143
  4. Kok, B, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychol Sci. 2013 Jul 1:24(7): 1123-32.
  5. Stanley J., Peake J. M., Buchheit M. (2013a). Cardiac parasympathetic reactivation following exercise: implications for training prescription. Sports Med. 43 1259–1277. 10.1007/s40279-013-0083-4

Photo credits: Wellcome Library/Public domain; Stephen Porges

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