The saying goes, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, but when it comes to what happens with the Vagus nerve, it definitely doesn’t stay in the Vagus nerve.
The Vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves – named that because they emerge directly from the cranium, or brain, and not the spinal cord.
The Vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and is so named for the Latin word “wanderer”. The Vagus nerve wanders like a vagabond, sending out nerve fibers from the brain, down the neck, and then passes around the digestive system, liver, spleen, pancreas, heart, and lungs.
The Autonomic nervous system is responsible for the involuntary functions of our body. It controls our heart rate, breathing, digestion, hormone release, and even plays a part in memory and cognition.
The Autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts – The Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Sympathetic Nervous System.
The general function of the Parasympathetic is to control homeostasis (maintain steady conditions) and the body’s rest-and-digest response, kind of like a brake pedal.
The general function of the Sympathetic is to mobilize the body’s fight-or-flight response, kind of like the gas pedal.
The Vagus Nerve provides the gateway between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. It’s like a central switchboard that directs impulses going to and from the body and signals to and from the brain. It oversees a vast range of crucial functions – communicating nerve impulses to every organ in your body. It’s not surprising then, an impaired functioning of this nerve can lead to many different conditions and problems.
At any given moment, your nervous system is determining whether you are in danger or not, and then responds accordingly. If the nervous system thinks you are in danger, it will always favor the survival mode.
We can run into trouble because our nervous system is also adaptable. The more it uses the survival or protection side, the more that becomes your default setting.
Living in survival mode means high blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, cardiovascular disturbances, anxiety, inflammation, memory and concentration issues, emotional imbalances, problems with sugar control, and hormonal imbalances.
When we are in survival mode, it is almost impossible to move toward growth and repair. Modern civilization stressors can push us into survival mode. We need to find ways to reduce the survival mode and express the growth mode.
The Vagus nerve’s main role is calming you down through the Parasympathetic Nervous System. If we can stimulate the Vagus nerve, we promote calmness in our nervous system, and this will allow for healing, growth, and happiness.
The strength of your Vagus response or “tone” can actually be measured by tracking your heart rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart speeds up slightly when you breathe in and slows down a little when breathing out. The bigger the difference, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone means your body can relax faster after stressful situations.
Higher vagal tone improves the function of many body systems, causing better blood sugar regulation, reduced stroke, and cardiovascular disease, lowered blood pressure, improved digestion, and reduced migraines. Higher tone is also associated with better mood, less anxiety, and more stress resilience.
One very interesting role of the Vagus nerve is that it monitors the gut microbiome and if a pathogen is detected, initiates a response to modulate inflammation. Through this mechanism, gut microbiome can have an effect on your mood, stress level, and overall inflammation.
Here are some ways to increase tone to the Vagus nerve and move towards a healthier system:
1) Slow, rhythmic breathing from your diaphragm – rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs. This stimulates and tones the Vagus nerve.
2) Humming. Since the Vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. Hum a song or repeat the sound “OM”.
3) Washing your face with cold water. The mechanism here is not well known, but cold water on your face stimulates the Vagus nerve.
4) Meditation. Especially focusing on feelings of kindness and goodwill towards others. A 2010 study found that increasing positive emotions led to improved Vagal tone.
5) Balancing the gut. The presence of healthy gut bacteria creates a positive feedback loop through the Vagus nerve, increasing its tone.
6) Chiropractic care. A 2018 Australian study found that regular chiropractic care improved Vagal tone in the participants.
Get to know your Vagus nerve and try to increase its tone. It will help regulate your overall body systems and immune response. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to call our office. We will be happy to get you scheduled and discuss your Vagus nerve!
-Dr. Tom DeWall, Chiropractor