Are you dealing with tremendous anxiety? Are you often sick and doctors can’t figure out what is wrong? Do you wonder if you’ll ever be “normal” again? Hope is here, don’t give up. I’ll share a secret that I’ve learned that ties a lot of chronic health conditions together and how to start living the life you were meant to enjoy. This time what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Rather it stays in Vagus, as in your vagus nerve.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves in your body. This nerve communicates everything from your brain to your body and back. This nerve is the master communicator in your body when it comes to health. the name “vagus” means wandering, appropriate for a nerve that wanders all throughout your body, from your brain to your neck, chest and abdomen. It starts in your brain at the 10th cranial position and transverses through most of your body.
The vagus nerve’s functions contribute to the automatic nervous system, of which there are two branches of: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. Think of it as a circuit that connects the neck, heart, lungs, and the abdomen to the brain.
Why should I be interested in the vagus nerve? What does it affect?
- Sensory: From the throat, heart, lungs, and abdomen.
- Special sensory: Provides taste sensation behind the tongue.
- Motor: Provides movement functions for the muscles in the neck responsible for swallowing and speech.
- Parasympathetic: Responsible for the digestive tract, respiration, and heart rate functioning.
The vagus nerve functions can be broken down even further. One part is balancing the nervous system. The two branches of the nervous system are the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system controls: alertness, energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system: decreases alertness, blood pressure, and heart rate, and helps with calmness, relaxation, and digestion. The vagus nerve also can be instrumental in other bodily functions such as defecation, urination and sexual arousal. Got your attention yet?
Other “jobs” of the vagus nerve include but are not limited to other bodily functions, such as:
- Communication between the brain and the gut
- Relaxation with deep breathing, vagus nerve interacts with the diaphragm
- Decreasing inflammation
- Lowering the heart rate and blood pressure
- Fear management, dealing with stress and anxiety
How Would I Know If I Had Issues with the Vagus Nerve?
Vagus nerve dysfunction can result in a whole host of problems including obesity, bradycardia (abnormally slow heartbeat), difficulty swallowing, gastrointestinal diseases, fainting, mood disorders, B12 deficiency, chronic inflammation, impaired cough, and seizures.
Meanwhile, the vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to improve conditions such as:
- Anxiety disorder
- Heart disease
- Alcohol addiction
- Leaky gut
- Bad blood circulation
- Mood disorder
In 1997, the FDA approved an electronic device for Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) implanted in the patient’s chest that stimulates the vagus nerve, primarily for patients with epilepsy.
10 Ways You Can Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
1. Positive Social Relationships – studies have shown that being in a supportive community boosters feelings of contentment and joy. Hugs especially are beneficial because when you hug someone else your body releases oxytocin, which has been described as “an important component of a complex neurochemical system that allows the body to adapt to highly emotive situations.” Patients with autism are believed to be deficient in oxytocin, and hence the lack of facial expressions or the ability to relate to family, even caregivers. In 2013, a small study suggested that oxytocin levels in the brain affected how 17 children perceived a series of social and non-social images.
Oxytocin may also play a role in anger management. Research has indicated that certain polymorphisms of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene are associated with an increased tendency to react angrily to situations. In particular, differences in OXTR gene expression appear to affect the regulation of the relationship between alcohol and aggressive behavior. ¹
2. Cold – Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases–and this is mediated by the vagus nerve. Any kind of acute cold exposure including drinking ice cold water will increase vagus nerve activation.² Warning: Cold water shocks can be contraindicated for persons with Long QT Syndrome (LQTS). “Cold-water submersion (head under) is known to be a trigger for supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias in young, seemingly healthy people, who do not exhibit evidence of arrhythmias at rest [, , , , ]. These arrhythmic events are not commonly observed in the same individuals during head out cold-water immersions (sympathetic stimulation, no parasympathetic stimulations), or during facial immersion, with breath-hold, which activates the parasympathetic diving reflex and not the cold-shock (sympathetic) response.” ³ For more information on LQTS, please visit the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome (SADS) website. (More than 4,000 young lives are lost each year to sudden arrhythmia death syndromes (SADS) in the United States alone.)
3. Gargling or Yawning – using plain water, the gargling stimulates the muscles in your pallet which are stimulated by the vagus nerve. Yawning also resets the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates vagal tone. If either of these activities bring tears to your eyes, so much the better for the vagus nerve.
4. Singing, Praying or chanting – a great place for vagus nerve stimulation is in church. The act of singing, especially singing hymns with others, praying (aloud) or chanting, speaking or otherwise using the vocal chords activates and stimulates the vagal nerve since it so transverses through the neck in close proximity to the larynx. “Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and vagus function. Singing has been found to increase oxytocin, also known as the love hormone because it makes people feel closer to one another.” ²
5. Massage – Stimulating the vagus nerve can be done by massage. A foot or neck massage along the carotid arteries (along either side of your neck) can increase vagal tone. A foot massage can lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. Massages on infants can help increase weight due to the stimulation of the vagus nerve and increased gut function.
6. Laughter – being happy increases a person’s immunity and laughing also stimulates the vagus nerve. Studies have shown that some people have fainted after laughing, probably due to the vagus nerve/parasympathetic system being overstimulated. Have you ever laughed so hard that it made you urination, cough, swallow or had a bowel movement afterwards?
7. Yoga and/or Tai Chi – one of my favorite ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and changing my brain at the molecular level is by practicing yoga. Yoga increases GABA which is a calming neurotransmitter in your brain that enhances vagal tone. Increasing GABA is effectively what the prescription Xanax does and why it is prescribed for anxiety. I was prescribed Xanax to decrease my blood pressure and heart rate when other cardiac drugs failed. It was during my research on Xanax (in an effort to get off the drug and get the benefits more naturally) that I “discovered” the vagus nerve and began my research several years ago.
8. Breathing Deeply and Slowly – the vagal nerve is directly affected by the diaphragm and can by strengthened by practicing full, deep breathing exercises that really stretch your ribs and work that muscle known as your diaphragm. “Your heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called baroreceptors, which detect blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain. This activates your vagus nerve that connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate.” ² Incorporating some deep breathing exercises in your daily routine can greatly enhance your vagal tone and heart rate variability (HRV).
9. Exercise – supports the mitochondria to your brain and enhances the vagus nerve. Exercise provides better blood flow, a stronger immune system and overall well being. Exercise can stimulate gut flow which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve.
10. Relaxing – turning off the tv, going for a walk in nature, anything that allows you to relax will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and provide better vagal tone.
“Ultimately, this is where the most profoundly felt impacts can be found. Reading a book, listening to music, watching children play–whatever it is, my advice is to seek relaxation and make time in your life for it.” ~ Dr Justin Hoffman
For more information about the vagus nerve, I’ve included a YouTube video, “How to Heal the Vagus Nerve to Heal Your Mind” done by Sally Gray, Naturopathic Doctor (see video above). Also a lot of information can be found in this Bullet Proof podcast interview of Dr. Stephen Porges, the scientist who developed the “Polyvagal Theory” (a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders) and also quantified “Heart Rate Variability”. The interview is named the Stephen Porges: The Polyvagal Theory & The Vagal Nerve – #264 on YouTube. For more information about Stephen Porges, PhD, please visit his website I have provided for your convenience.
I believe that the vagus nerve was involved with the miraculous healing of the little girl in the true story and movie, “Miracles from Heaven”.
Author’s Note: My health issues have involved pyloric stenosis, Left Bundle Branch Block (LBBB), Sudden Cardiac Arrest, emergency bowel resection after a bowel perforation blamed on diverticulitis, and extreme sensitivity to lights and sounds, especially sudden. Three of these conditions nearly cost me my life. When I connected the dots, they all led to problems with the vagus nerve.
¹ What is the Link between Oxytocin and Love? Medical News Today
² 12 Ways to Unlock the Power of the Vagus Nerve, Uplift Connect