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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Cunningham

Let's talk Vagus!

The vagus nerve is actually a pair of cranial nerves. There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves in total; the vagus is the 10th, and the longest nerve in the body. It's Latin name means the “wandering nerve”. Running from the brain stem, it extends all the way down into the torso and abdomen, branching out to your heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines. The vagus nerve receives sensory information from the neck, chest and abdomen, and controls speaking and swallowing. It is the main parasympathetic nerve in the body, carrying 75% of the cranial parasympathetic function. Parasympathetic nerves are responsible for calming the body down after a period of stress.

The vagus nerve goes into overdrive in response to stimuli such as the sight of blood, emotional distress, exposure to heat, standing for a long period of time, or even straining to pass a bowel movement. When this happens, fainting, weakness at the knees or feeling "wobbly" can occur.

If you feel stressed or anxious then your body produces stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These cause your heart to beat faster, your blood pressure to increase, your digestion to slow and your breathing rate to increase ready to flee from danger. These “fight or flight” hormones are part of the body's sympathetic nervous system response to perceived danger. In order to calm yourself down again you need to engage your parasympathetic nervous system which will slow your heart rate, reduce your blood pressure, increase your digestive process and slow your breathing rate. You can do this by engaging your vagus nerve.

For those of you that like your research:

In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa. “The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion; all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic.

A breathing exercise where your inhalations are shorter than your exhalations (maybe you breathe in for a count of four, then breathe out for a count of eight) has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. A 2018 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience paper showed that "in addition to increasing vagus nerve activity, this prolonged-exhalation type of breathing might also engage the parasympathetic nervous system".

Another study found that stimulating the vagus nerve dramatically reduces the severity of depression. The 2016 study, published in Biological Psychiatry, was a collaboration between the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and Harvard Medical School.

Top ten ways you can stimulate your vagus nerve naturally -

1. Cold Exposure :

Exposing your body to acute cold conditions, such as taking a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face, increases stimulation of the vagus nerve.

While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, while parasympathetic activity increases.

2. Deep and Slow Breathing:

Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.

3. Singing loudly:

Singing at the top of your voice causes vibration in the throat that stimulates the vagus nerve.

4. Humming:

The vagus nerve passes close by the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibration of humming is an easy way to influence your nervous system. Sometimes when we feel nervous we instinctively start to hum as a method of self-soothing.

5. Gargling:

Gargling with mouthwash or water will also stimulate the nerve, as you tip your head back and create a vibration in the back of the throat.

6. Chanting:

The sounds 'om' and 'voo' have been found to be particularly effective. Here's how to do it. "You take a deep, full, easy breath, and on the exhalation, make the sustained sound “voo” directing the vibration to your gut. Once you let the air all the way out, you just allow the next breath to come in, spontaneously filling the belly and chest. In continuing this deep, resonant breathing, you slowly shift out of the freeze response" - Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing.

7. Meditation:

Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill reducing the sympathetic “fight or flight” response. When we meditate, we encourage our body to switch operational control from the ‘Fight or Flight’ system (sympathetic nervous system) to the ‘Rest and Digest’ system (parasympathetic nervous system).

8. Exercise:

Walking daily has been shown to improve mood and help us feel calmer. The vagus nerve is stimulated during exercise. "Exercise stimulates your vagus nerve and lowers stress responses associated with "fight-or-flight" mechanisms". - Psychology Today. If we exercise hard enough to increase our heart rate and make us breath hard we are connecting with the vagus nerve.

9. Massage:

Some research suggests that massages are most effective at stimulating the vagus nerve when they’re done on the feet and on the carotid sinus (right side of the neck)

10. Laughter:

Stimulation of the vagus nerve at the back of the throat when laughing out loud makes us relax and feel good.

To summarise, the vagus nerve helps to calm the body down after stress. There are a number of ways we can consciously engage the vagus nerve to help make ourselves feel calmer. So, next time you are feeling stressed, try some of these tips and see if it helps.

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