Have you ever felt the relaxing effect of taking a few deep breaths after slamming on your breaks to avoid running a red light? Or the relief you felt after taking a few moments to center yourself after experiencing a cringe worthy embarrassing moment? That is your vagus nerve, sending calming energy throughout your body. In fact, acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter is released, which sends a signal to your lungs to breathe.
Named after “wanderer” in Latin, the vagus nerve lives up to its name by extending and visiting all organs in the body. The vagus is actually a pair of nerves which are part of the parasympathetic nervous system that begin in the brain stem and travel through the thoracic region into the abdomen. Known as the communication highway, “the vagus nerve carries an extensive range of signals from digestive system and organs to the brain and vice versa. (2)” They also have a profound and vital effect on each of them, as they are in a constant feedback loop with the brain. The vagus nerve assists in digestion through the release of cholecystokinin or CCK, which is an amino acid released by stomach cells in response to the presence of food in the stomach. When the signal is activated, “gastric acid is produced, pancreatic enzymes are released and the body is able to digest and assimilate fatty acids and protein. (3)” The vagus nerve function can be compromised by stress, and the signal to release hormones is not activated, leaving a person unable to properly digest their food, which in turn leads to constipation, gas, bloating or IBS. Not only does it assist in releasing hormones, it also assists in involuntary contractions in the large and small intestine which move food through the digestive tract.
Fight or Flight is your body’s sympathetic nervous system response to a stressful situation, such as an emergency, feeling scared or surprised. This is normal, and will pass when the situation ends. However, prolonged stressors, like an abusive boss, an unhealthy relationship or unsafe living situation can lead to your body being in a chronic state of stress, and this weakens the vagus nerve function. Vagus nerve dysfunction can also lead to depression, anxiety, fainting, epilepsy, poor memory and inflammation. Since it touches every organ system in the body, keeping it toned and healthy is vital for overall vibrant health. The good news is that you can do simple, daily exercises which tone the vagus nerve, and contribute to the healing of many ailments and disruptions within your body.
Meditation has been shown to be effective in the strengthening of the vagus nerve, through the positive feelings and emotions produced and connectedness to those around you. A study conducted on the effect meditation has on the vagus, showed that through sustained enhancements in an individual’s emotions and social perceptions,” (4) you can improve vagal tone and also be happier and experience more positive emotions. Chanting, singing and humming all work to initiate vagul pump to tone the nerve. “ This happens when you are in a relaxed state, leading your nervous system to also be calmed (5).” Deep breathing, where you breathe through your diaphragm is also beneficial for the tone of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is often forgotten about when we are experiencing uncomfortable physical symptoms, and it is a beautiful reminder that to get aligned with health and healing you don't have to do anything extreme, sometimes all you have to do is breathe and
say a few OM’s….
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Vagus Nerve.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Mar. 2020, www.britannica.com/science/vagus-nerve.
Breit, Sigrid, et al. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media S.A., 13 Mar. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128/.
3. Rogers, Richard C, and Gerlinda E Hermann. “Mechanisms of Action of CCK to Activate Central Vagal Afferent Terminals.” Peptides, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2650377/.
4. Kok, Bethany E, et al. “How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.” Psychological Science, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23649562.
5. Vickhoff, Björn et al. “Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 4 334. 9 Jul. 2013, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334