What does the vagus nerve do? And why is it so important?
The vagus nerve is actually a bundle of nerve fibers that stretch from the brain stem down into colon - connecting brain to gut, to put simply.
It’s called “vagus” because it wanders like a vagabond from the back of the neck down into the digestive system.
These nerve fibers can be found on the right and left sides of your body, connecting most of your major organs.
It’s known as the “wonder nerve” because of the crucial role it plays in your well-being.
When this nerve is stimulated, it activates your body’s relaxation response to help deal with stress and a wide range of other conditions.
What is the purpose of the Vagus Nerve?
Your nervous system can be divided into two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic part increases your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, alertness and energy levels when needed, while the parasympathetic part decreases them.
The sympathetic side is often called the “fight or flight” system, while the parasympathetic side is referred to as the “rest and digest” system.
Ways to stimulate vagus nerve in yogaSlow deep breathing
Breathing is one of the most simple and effective ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and elicit the relaxation response. Simply taking a slow, long and diaphragmatic breath. Try to slow your breath down to 5 breathing cycles per minute.
It will encourage the vagus nerve to let the brain know it’s time to relax.
The vagus nerve runs through the throat and vocal cords too so specific yogic pranayama techniques like Ujjayi breath and Bhramari breath (humming-bee breath) can be even more powerful.
To practice Brahmari breath, take a long breath in and then let out an audible ‘hummmm’ with your mouth closed as you exhale.Singing & chanting
Singing and chanting have been shown to work with the vagus nerve to bring the body into a state of ‘rest and digest’. Try singing in the shower or along with the radio in your car! Or for more experience practitioners - try the ‘Aum’ or ‘Om’ mantra. It is particularly effective for cultivating a sense of calm, and is said to send out purifying, positive vibrations to the environment around you.Cold therapy
Have you tried cold showers yet? Or perhaps sea swim? Cold exposure has increasingly been found to help relieve anxiety and stress, stimulate the vagus nerve.
If a full-on cold shower isn’t for you, try splashing your face with cold water – especially when in the midst of a wave of worry or anxiety – as this has similar effects, or stepping outside for short amounts of time with minimal clothing in cold weather.Meditaion
Whether it’s a guided meditation session, or a regular routine of yoga Nidra classes I teach every Monday night in my studio in North Shields where I teach meditation, guided relaxation and Pranayama - all above has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing the heart rate, relaxing the muscles of the abdomen, and slowing brainwave activity and even blood pressure
In my next blog I will tell you about the positive experiment I had with my student who has an extremely high blood pressure.
All of these aspects signal to the vagus nerve that the body is in a relaxed and safe state, thus sending messages to the brain to let it know it’s ok to relax. Positive, loving thoughts are also highly beneficial for vagus nerve activity.GUT Health
The brain and gut are in constant communication via the vagus nerve. Which is why gut health and mental health are so intrinsically linked. In fact, when it comes to people with food sensitivities, anxiety, gut problems, brain fog and depersonalisation, a poorly functioning vagus nerve is often at play.
If you suffer with digestive issues – reflect upon whether these bouts of indigestion or stomach issues tend to be accompanied by mood swings or brain fog. If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s time to take greater care of your gut, as over 80% of our immune system is actually located within it!
Good quality probiotic can help improve gut bacteria, including more pre and probiotics in your meals. Try sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha or kefir. Include occasional fasting, ensuring you’re not eating too late at night, and cutting down on refined sugar can also have a positive impact upon gut health and reducing anxiety and stress.