Vagus Nerve – Our information highway

You have some nerve – and so do I! It’s called the Vagus Nerve and we can consider it the boss of the nervous system. This “wandering nerve” is an information highway and it starts in the brain and passes through the throat, esophagus, lungs, heart, diaphragm and intestines. While wandering around inside of us, it helps each of these organs communicate with one another and therefore carry out critical functions.  The bi-directional flow of communication moves between the brain, cardiovascular system, gut and immune system. One of the most important jobs of the vagus nerve is as it relates to the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest function).  And this is why I am fascinated with it in conjunction with gut health – without the vagus nerve functioning well, our digestive functions will be compromised – and that can have an impact on so many aspects of our health.

Here are some reasons you should consider the importance of the health of your vagus nerve:

  • The vagus nerve delivers information from the gut to the brain to help inform the brain how we are feeling. The whole concept of “gut feelings” is a real thing – and the conversation happening along the vagus nerve (from the gut to the brain) is where this comes from.
  • The vagus nerve helps us breathe better. The vagus nerve sends out a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which actually tells our lungs to breathe and which also plays a role in putting on the brakes when it comes to inflammation in the body.
  • The vagus nerve sends an anti-inflammatory signal to other parts of the body. We need the vagus nerve signaling to be flowing and working well to help minimize the amount of time our body spends in sympathetic (the fight or flight) response. Chronic stress, which leads us to stay amped up in the fight or flight mode, can lead to chronic inflammation which we are learning is at the root of most chronic disease.
  • The vagus nerve can help us make memories. A University of Virginia study in rats showed that stimulating their vagus nerves strengthened their memory. The action released the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala, which consolidated memories. Related studies are being done in humans, suggesting promising treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The vagus nerve plays a role in the functioning of our heart. The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses to specialized muscle tissue—the heart’s natural pacemaker—in the right atrium, where acetylcholine release slows the pulse. By measuring the time between your individual heart beats, and then plotting this on a chart over time, doctors can determine your heart rate variability, or HRV. This data can offer clues about the resilience of your heart and vagus nerve.
  • Overstimulation of the vagus nerve is the most common cause of fainting. When you get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a shot you are experiencing vagal syncope. It is the body having a response to the stress and the overstimulation causes your blood pressure and heart rate to drop. When it’s really severe the blood flow is restricted to the brain and you can lose consciousness.
  • The vagus nerve initiates our relaxation response. When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out.  People with a stronger vagus response may be more likely to recover more quickly after stress, injury, or illness.

SO, how do we get a stronger vagus response? The exciting news is there are really straightforward ways to do this, some of which are available to you right this second, require no medication and can make a difference very quickly!

  • The first way to help strengthen vagal tone (an indicator of how well the vagus nerve is functioning) is through deep breathing! Take some really good deep breaths – focusing on the inhale and the exhale. This can slow down the heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which is the variation between heartbeats and which is used as a measurement of stress. It is of particular importance to slow down the exhale as that is the part of the breath cycle when our heart rate decreases.
  • Another option is acupuncture. Trained acupuncturist can stimulate the vagus nerve. This can help produce an anti-inflammatory response and reduce heart rate.
  • Positive thoughts have an impact on our nervous system and that could have an impact on the vagus nerve. It is believed that negative thoughts can create inflammation and positive thoughts can help reduce it! Because an active vagus nerve releases anti-inflammatory cytokines, this could be the way that emotions and inflammation are connected. What we do know for sure is that bad thoughts are stressful and stress stunts cellular growth. Good thoughts trigger oxytocin and dopamine which help our cells to thrive.
  • Laughter can stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone as can singing, chanting and humming. Any sort of vocal work or activity like these, where positive vibrations are released from the body can stimulate the vagus nerve and make it stronger.
  • A cold plunge can also help support the body’s ability to transition between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It helps build up the immune system. If you don’t have access to a cold plunge (around 20 seconds) right out of your hot shower, what can work (and what I do now) is at the end of each warm shower I move the water to cold and stand under it taking deep breaths for 3 cycles (breathing in for around a count of 5 and out for at least 5).

I invite you to add some or all of these techniques into your self care practices. We know that stress is a key factor in the development and persistence of many gut conditions.  Learning how to manage stress is incredibly important to good gut health. We now know that the vagus nerve is a major player in our ability to manage stress at the biological level. Because of this, it makes real sense to engage in practices that stimulate the vagus nerve so that in can help us move more quickly from the fight or flight mode back to rest and digest. A healthy vagus nerve promotes resilience in the body and the mind and this resilience helps us retain or even reclaim our health.

Until next time friends,
XO, Peggy

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