I’m crazy excited to write about one of the unsung heroes that influences your bodily functions like a boss. Until the last several years, I had never even heard of the vagus nerve
So, of course, I hadn’t an inkling of its important role in our mental and physical health.
My friends, please allow me to introduce you to your amazing VAGUS NERVE!
It’s the longest nerve in your autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is important in managing our “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. All those “at peace” with the world feelings and states of being, like relaxation and calm.
The vagus nerve sends signals to release prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin – all of which calm us down.
Over time, a strong vagal tone can increase stress tolerance. This can lead to faster recovery time from illness, injury, stress, and emotional trauma.
Vagus means “wandering” in Latin.
You can think of this nerve as something like a free-wheeling explorer with multiple branches that wander through the body.
The vagus nerve is one of twelve nerves leading from the brain stem. It’s the only one leading all the way to the abdomen.
This nerve controls the functioning of most significant organs in the human body.
Research shows that 80% of the information transmitted by the vagus nerve flows from the body to the brain. Only 20% of the information transmitted flows from the brain to the body.
Fun fact: to support the autonomic nervous system, 90% of the brain’s output power is designated to the vagus nerve functions.
For our nervous system to operate in tip-top condition, we need to understand a bit about how the vagus nerve affects the body and what we can do to keep it healthy.
Let’s dig in!
The vagus nerve instructs your heart and lungs.
The heart is one of our body’s most important organs, keeping us alive as long as it’s pumping.
The vagus nerve controls the heart rate by sending electrical impulses to the heart.
Your heart rate is actually one of the most accurate points of reference in gauging the overall health of your vagus nerve.
It is the life-saving nerve for the unconscious person by dictating a constant and rhythmic heart rate.
It instructs the lungs to take deep and more even breaths, making it much easier for us to breathe.
The vagus nerve has a direct impact on digestion and obesity.
The vagus nerve plays an important role in helping us feel satisfied after we eat.
It’s responsible for sending a signal to your brain to stop eating when full.
If the vagus nerve is not functioning optimally, your hunger signals may not work efficiently, causing overeating and weight gain.
This study indicates that the integrity of our vagus nerve can link to obesity.
Studies show that gut microorganisms can activate the vagus nerve which impacts the brain and behavior.
Intestinal permeability, gut bacteria, and overall gut health have a huge impact on our brain. There’s a feedback loop in action here.
The Gut-Brain Connection is real.
According to the Food for the Brain Foundation:
The vagus nerve is connected to the gut and plays a crucial role in modulating the enteric nervous system, which is a complex network of nerves that are located in the wall of the upper intestinal tract.
This is a nervous system that is able to function entirely on its own, away from the central nervous system, which is composed of the spinal cord and the brain. Scientists have labelled it the ‘second brain’ due to its independent nature and its ability to communicate with the brain, which is where the vagus nerve comes into play.
The vagus nerve is essentially the ‘bridge’ between the brain and the gut, facilitating a bi-directional communication between the two organs.
- Avoid Processed Foods. A whole foods diet leads to proper digestion, as opposed to ultra-processed foods like white bread and chips. The prebiotic properties found in the fibers of whole foods will aid digestion. Avoiding aded sugar and sweets will help balance blood sugar.
- Eat probiotics. Probiotic-rich foods, such as kefir and sauerkraut, cause your gut to thrive and also help regulate your mood. Probiotics feed your microbiome, that good bacteria in your digestive tract, to help support your immune system.
- Consider Eliminating Gluten. Positive effects on the gut microbiome are correlated with limiting gluten intake.
- Eat Healthy Fats. Healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, and nuts have antioxidant properties that protect our cells from damage.
- Breathe Deeply. It’s one of the primary goals and functions of meditation. Though not a cure, meditation can be considered a breathing therapy for the vagus nerve.
- Increase Positive Emotion. Try a loving-kindness meditation to generate a positive attitude toward yourself and others.
- Gargle, Sing or Chant. Both gargling and singing mechanically stimulate the vagus nerve by vibrating the muscle fibers at the back of the mouth in the throat. Because part of the vagus nerve is located in this area, activities such as gargling can directly stimulate and fire the nerve fibers in the vagus.
Practicing these activities on a daily basis can help to improve vagus nerve tone, which can be harmed by chronic stress or trauma. And we’ve endured more than our fair share of chronic stress during this Covid 19 pandemic!
Deep breathing can have an immediate positive impact on the nervous system.
Although breathing happens automatically, it is also a process that we can control.
Deep belly breathing, and in particular, the lengthening of the exhale, can have an immediate positive impact on the nervous system.
One of the easiest and most accessible breathing techniques is the Box Breathing Exercise, which can be followed below:
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