What is The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus nerve is the longest and most complicated cranial nerve in the body. It is complex in its work and runs from the brain down through the face down the throat and into the abdomen. Its length and complexity make it important to the well-being of all individuals.
Also known as the 10th cranial nerve or the X cranial nerve, the vagus nerve is made up of parasympathetic fibers. The nerve possesses a pair of sensory ganglia, which is nerve tissue that carry sensory impulses. The two sensory ganglia are known as the inferior and superior ganglia. Overall, there are 12 cranial nerves in all individuals and come in twos, just like the sensory and inferior ganglia, and link the rest of the body to the brain.
The vagal response reduces the stress an individual experiences. It lowers heart rate and blood pressure, making people feel more relaxed after a stress-inducing situation. Functions of the brain can be changed due to the vagal response along with digestion.
What function does the vagus nerve serve?
The vagus nerve is separated into two parts: somatic and visceral components. The somatic component deals with sensations felt by the skin or muscles. Visceral components are sensations that occur in the body’s organs.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic system and is considered the leader of the system. The parasympathetic system makes up a portion of the involuntary nervous system, also known as the autonomic nervous system. The involuntary nervous system controls vital bodily functions including:
- Heat rate
- Blood pressure
- Pupil dilation
- Digestion of food
- Body temperature
The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of rest and relaxation. If it is stimulated by actions such as deep breathing, then the relaxing feeling produced by the parasympathetic nervous system’s actions are canceled out. The fight or flight sensation is then activated in the body.
Research has found that the body notices a person’s breathing and the heart rate adapts to it in a response to air in-take. As a person breathes in, the body’s lung stretch receptors acquire and process information before sending it to the vagus nerve and up to the brain. The brain sends messages back down the vagus nerve as individuals breathe out. This is done to slow the heart or speed it up. As a person breathes slowly, the heart rate slows down, and relaxation occurs. In comparison, as people breath more quickly, the heart rate increases, anxiety increases, and a more “amped up” feeling is produced.
What is the importance of the vagus nerve?
Dangerous and/or stressful events affect the sympathetic nervous system and dictates the body’s rapid involuntary response. It is a flood of hormones and the increase in heart rate sends additional blood to the muscles. Fresh oxygen is delivered to the brain as breathing increases. Glucose is produced and sent into the bloodstream providing individuals with an instant energy boost. The fight or flight reaction occurs so quickly that most individuals do not understand it is happening.
The vagus nerve and the sympathetic nervous system work to keep the body running normally. An increased vagal tone means the body can relax more quickly after experiencing a stressful situation. Research has found that good physical health, a high vagal tone, and positive emotions lead to a “positive feedback loop”. The higher a person’s vagal tone, the better their physical and mental health will be.
Studies have found that the vagal tone can be passed to a child from a mother. Mothers experiencing depression, anxiety, or anger during pregnancy possess low vagal levels and activity. After the child is born, they possess a low vagal activity, decreased dopamine, and low serotonin levels.
Modern Living & The Impact on Vagal Tone
Laura Martin, a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant and founder of Healing to Happy, stresses that modern living interrupts the Vagal tone due to the chronic toxicity of processed diets, stress, overworking and under-exercising. One of the more common and recurring themes in her work with clients is that she sees bodies of all ages that are consistently off balance, or out of synchronicity.
“The silent communication from these stressors constantly signals to the body is that it is under attack (fight or flight) and that it needs to prepare itself. When a body is in fight or flight mode, the rest of the duties the body needs to perform to be healthy (digestion, hormone balance, brain recovery, etc.) are shut down. All blood flow during this time is sent to muscles, helping escape an unconscious “attack”.
How can the vagus nerve be stimulated naturally?
The vagus nerve can be stimulated naturally by using a variety of methods. These stimulation methods can be completed without the need of medication. Regular stimulation can reduce a person’s anxiety and stress.
So, how can someone with a low vagus tone stimulate the nerve?
- Cold exposure – Cholinergic neurons in the vagus nerve can be stimulated through cold exposure. Regular cold exposure can decrease the fight or flight response, thus lowering anxiety and stress. Cold showers, exposures to cold weather, and rinsing the face with ice-cold water can improve stimulation.
- Slow/deep breathing – Anxiety can be lowered with slow, deep breathing. Taking six slow, deep breaths can lower the heart rate thus reducing anxiety.
- Singing/Chanting – The vocal cords are connected to the vagus nerve. The muscles in the throat can be activated through singing/chanting, which ultimately stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Probiotics – Research has found probiotics reach the gut and stimulate the vagus nerve producing more relaxed feelings. Different bacteria can lower stress hormones.
- Meditation – Deep thought stimulates positive emotions, reduces stresses, and improves the vagus tone in people.
- Omega 3 fatty-acids – The body cannot produce omega 3 fatty-acids. Found in fish, omega 3 fatty-acids can improve mood thanks to its effect on the nerve.
- Exercise – Doing exercise not only improves a person’s physical well-being but their mental health too. Walking, lifting weights, or running can improve and stimulate the vagus nerve providing individuals with mental health benefits.
- Massage therapy – Massages to targeted areas of the body can improve the vagal tone. One area that seems to be very effective is the feet.
- Socializing with friends – Experiencing social activity can benefit individuals with low vagal tone. Spending time with others and laughing is a stimulation device for the vagus nerve. Hanging out with other people on a regular basis can have a major impact on mental well-being.
The vagus nerve plays a major part in mental and physical well-being. Although the vagus nerve may need to be stimulated, it can be done in non-harmful ways that allow people to take their well-being into their own hands.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Addiction Recovery
During a recent January 2017 study, researchers at the University of Texas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences found that lab rats who had become addicted to cocaine significantly reduced their drug-seeking behavior when they were treated with Vagus Nerve Stimulation therapy. VNS therapy triggered changes in synaptic plasticity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala and appeared to eliminate cravings by establishing new reward behaviors in place of previous actions associated with pushing a lever to receive a hit of cocaine.
Addiction Recovery & The Nervous System
Having worked with clients in addiction recovery and also more generally, Laura Martin pinpoints the rise in health issues such as obesity, autoimmunity, digestive issues, anxiety, and depression, to an unregulated central nervous system. “Many clients feel they’ve tried everything to get healthy, yet felt nothing is working, especially in recovery” says Laura.
“I encourage clients to dive deeper and work with them to look at regulating their nervous system. When you begin to implement these natural practices of regulating the nervous system, the body can enter a period of physical serenity, as well as emotional calm.
Harmoniously balancing the rest and repair mechanism is where the real magic happens.”