The Vagus Nerve: Funny name, Big Function

Have you ever wondered why breathing, meditation, and yoga have such a big impact on your brain? Or what’s behind those gut-feelings you have?

Introducing:

The vagus nerve

Meaning “vagabond,” or wanderer, it reaches out from the brain in all directions to important organs such as the heart, lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines. As a part of the nervous system, it serves as a two-way communication highway influencing and monitoring how the body works.

Our bodies operate in two modes: “fight-or-flight” or “rest-and-digest.” Fight or flight is activated when we face stress and our body reacts by increasing our heart rate, producing adrenaline and slowing down our digestion—a state we do not want to be in often.

The vagus nerve plays a huge role in promoting rest and digest, influencing our ability to relax and recover through some key functions:

Breathing and Heart Rate

It acts as a braking system for our breath and heartbeat. When we feel safe and relaxed the vagus nerve puts us into “rest-and-digest” and uses its connection to lung and heart muscles to slow them down. When experiencing stress, the vagus takes a back seat and “fight-or-flight” causes the opposite to happen.

Inflammation

In times of stress, injury, or sickness, inflammation increases in order to help make us well again. Ongoing inflammation, however, is seen as the hallmark of disease. The vagus nerve plays a big role in controlling our inflammatory response by communicating with our immune systems. In some cases, drug-treatment of inflammation may even be replaced by stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Digestion

Have you ever eaten in a hurry and experienced a stomach ache? The release of stomach acid (to help you digest) and the movement of your intestines (to help digest and eliminate) is regulated by the vagus. When you eat with anxiety, your vagus nerve is no longer piloting you to better digestion. This is why it is best to eat in a relaxed and positive state.

The Gut

Many recent studies link the state of our microbiome—the billions of good and bad bacteria in our intestines—and mental health. It’s thought that this happens through a communication link called the microbiome-gut-brain axis, which uses the vagus nerve.

Experience any strong gut-feelings lately? A study in Switzerland found that this may be due to this vagal gut-brain connection. All the more reason to look after your gut health and the vagus!

Mental Health

The vagus nerve helps us feel calm and relaxed, improving how we feel overall. When we are in such a positive state, things like managing emotions and having positive social interactions come more easily. There are even links to vagus nerve stimulation and treatment of depression.

Research shows that by improving the function—or vagal tone—of this nerve, we can improve our mental health and reduce stress.

Wondering how to tone yours up? Here are a few ideas:

  • Take a daily cold shower to activate the nerve

  • Practice regular deep breathing into the belly uses your diaphragm to stimulate the nerve. A longer exhalation than inhalation is the general rule of thumb – try an inhale for a count of 3 and exhale for a count of 4 to begin and then make each breath longer and deeper with more practice

  • Gargling, humming, chanting or singing all use muscles in the throat which connect to the vagus.

  • Manual or ball-assisted massage of the abdomen

  • Poses and movements in yoga stimulate the vagus causing positive effects in the body. Try the mountain pose, upward salute and eagle pose to stimulate your vagus nerve.

It may have a funny name, but plenty of evidence points to it being the unsung hero of our wellbeing.  The good news is that there are many simple ways to improve this mind-body connection.