The vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves and is active in both the sympathetic nervous system (our stress response) and our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest response). It is the longest cranial nerve and passes from the brain, through the neck to the abdomen. It has a wide distribution throughout the body and is a two directional pathway linking your gut to your brain as well as sending signals to and from other internal organs. It also controls body processes such as digestion and heart rate.
You may have already heard about the ‘gut-brain axis’, well that is your vagus nerve.
Why is it important?
As you would expect, the vagus nerve is a very important part of the human body, particularly given it controls vital body processes. However, research is also identifying other reasons this nerve is so important for health.
Because this nerve is two directional, it sends signals from organs to the brain about the health of these organs, as well as sending signals from the brain to your organs to either prepare for a stressful event or calm you down when you are not in danger. The effects of this two-way system is of course something we all feel regularly and our survival depends on it.
An easy way to think of it is to consider your response to a potentially dangerous or threatening situation. Your fight or flight response is activated to help you get out of danger. And conversely, when you no longer feel threatened your brain sends the message to your organs that you are safe and the vagus nerve slows your heart rate, allows your digestive processes to work again the way they should, and you feel calm.
Optimal communication between your organs and your brain should be balanced, with few stressful situations (hopefully). However these days, many people (although not in danger) are in a constant state of stress (due to family, work, financial issues etc), meaning their rest and digest processes are impaired, leading to a variety of health concerns or symptoms.
How does the vagus nerve impact your health?
Stimulating the vagus nerve is an interesting area of research and is being considered as a treatment option for many chronic health conditions, particularly heart disease, depression and epilepsy. However, the vagus nerve also plays a part in controlling immune function and inflammatory responses in the body which have far reaching health implications if it is not toned (i.e. regulated).
Research is also identifying that the gut microbiome (the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut) can be disrupted in times of prolonged anxiety or stress, and a disrupted gut microbiome can alter your neurotransmitters, those feel good chemicals (it’s that two directional signalling again).
So, whilst research into all the health implications of a poorly toned vagus nerve is in its infancy, what we have uncovered is that improving the tone of your vagus nerve can have some significant health benefits.
How can you improve the tone of your vagus nerve?
Stimulating the vagus nerve may be done using a medical device in certain circumstances, however simply toning the vagus nerve can be done through deep breathing (using the diaphragm), meditation, yoga chanting or simply the practice of yoga.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga practice and engaged in chanting ‘Om’ you will know it aids meditation, however this chanting also creates a vibration sensation which is transmitted through the vagus nerve, calming the nervous system. It can switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your body to rest and digest, deactivate inflammatory signals and support your immune system.
If you’re one of my naturopathy clients you will often hear me recommending regular relaxation, meditation or yoga as part of a healthy lifestyle, and you now have even more reason to make it a part of your daily routine.
How to incorporate vagus nerve toning into your daily life?
Try one or more of the following:
- Join a yoga class regularly
- Practise some gentle yoga at home
- Practise deep breathing using your belly
- Develop a meditation practice – use apps if you need assistance to get you started
- Engage in regular chanting
A great way to get started without it being too confronting (if chanting is not yet your thing) is to try the practice of ‘humming bee breath’. All you need to do is:
- Find a comfortable seated position
- Using your forefingers gently block your ears
- Close your eyes and take a deep inhale
- On your exhale, hum
- Repeat 7 times
During this exercise you will notice the vibration of your humming in your ears. Notice the silence and quiet in between hums, and the residual vibration moving through your body. This is a really simple way to improve the tone of your vagus nerve every day. Follow it up with deep breathing for as long as you can sit comfortably, expanding your belly with each inhale and emptying your belly with each exhale. Enjoy!