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What Happens in Vagus

by Mary Beth Janssen


Is the vagus nerve the medical holy grail for optimal health and well-being?


The vagus nerve (VN) might just be the most important nerve you didn’t know you have, and there’s a growing buzz around it. In Latin, the word “vagus” means “wandering,” an appropriate way to describe the meandering path of the vagus nerve from your brain stem to your gut, innervating the larynx, esophagus, trachea, lungs, heart and most of the digestive system.

The VN is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves, and what many researchers now believe may be a key structure or “medical holy grail” for optimal health and well-being. Personally, I like to think of the vagus nerve as our body’s care-taking nerve, responsible for healing.

Our VN carries more communication back and forth between brain and body than any other. The body sends messages to the brain along this nerve pathway and the brain responds accordingly by sending chemical messengers like neurotransmitters and hormones to modulate a vast range of crucial functions throughout our body.

The VN helps to regulate many critical aspects of our mind-body physiology, including heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, metabolism, sweating, digestion, swallowing, and even speaking. Essentially, it is part of a circuit that links the neck, heart, lungs and abdomen to the brain. It has different functions: sensory, motor and parasympathetic. When we strengthen or “tone” the VN, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response that is critical for the body’s rest/digest/repair functions.

This deep and sustained relaxation has a long list of benefits including improved heart function/rhythm, reduced inflammation and pain, as well as improved gastrointestinal and immune system function. Neurological and cognitive function as well as mental health are also impacted. When our VN is malfunctioning (poor vagal tone), the fight/ flight/freeze system takes over placing us in stress mode with its accompanying manifestations of physical maladies as well as mood disorders.


Here are simple things you can do that may stimulate VN tone:


Make each inhale and exhale as smooth, slow, soft and long as you can, to stimulate VN tone. Make the inhale/exhale equal in length. If possible, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Breathing around six to eight breaths per minute in the average adult can be very helpful to elicit deep relaxation.


Meditation brings your body into a state of tranquility, telling your vagus nerve that there is no need for a fight/flight/freeze response, thereby increasing vagal tone.

3. COLD 

Exposure to cold will increase VN activation. Dip your face in cold water or splash cold water onto face, take a cold shower or drink ice cold water.


Humming (especially yoga’s bhramari or bumble bee breath), mantra chanting (om), upbeat and energetic singing all tone the VN and increase heart rate variability (HRV).


Massage the neck along the carotid sinus, located along the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. (Check out Osea Vagus Nerve Oil for this massage.) Foot massage can also increase vagal activity and heart rate variability while lowering heart rate and blood pressure.


Laughter and happiness are natural immune boosters, and laughter also stimulates the VN. Research shows how laughter increases HRV in a group environment. Check out your local laughter yoga class!


Both increase VN activity and the parasympathetic system in general. Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression.


Exercise stimulates the vagus nerve, leading to beneficial brain and mental health effects. Mild exercise also stimulates gut fl ow, mediated by the vagus nerve.


Learning how to chill just may be the number one thing to help keep your vagus nerve toned.

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