What even is the Vagus nerve and why should I really care?
Think of the Vagus nerve as the Queen of the parasympathetic nervous system. The Queen of the chill out nervous system, the vagrant wanderer of the body with Wanderlust and the superhighway of communication between your brain and all of your organs – the longest nerve in the body!
Because it connects your brain with all the organs, it is responsible for regulating your appetite, heart rate although HRV or Heart rate variability is a more accurate indication of your vagal tone. It regulates how you digest food, how you bounce back from stress, how your body detoxes, your mood.
Vagus literally means wandering and it is so called as it is a nerve that branches off into each of your bodily organs, as mentioned. We say Vagus nerve but technically, there are two, one either side. It starts in the medulla oblongata of the brain stem at the bottom of the skull, back of your neck and travels through the front of the neck between the carrotid artery and jugular vein to the heart and then branches off to your different organs.
Sounds pretty important right and it is, more than we realise for our over all health and wellbeing! There have been many solid studies on the vagus nerve, vagal tone and vagus nerve stimulation in recent years, with some interesting findings.
We talk about mind-body connection – well there is your connection on a non energetic level! When we say “trust your gut” – we should really be saying “trust your vagus nerve” although it doesn’t have the same ring to it! 😉
Chronic levels of stress over time can lead to low vagal tone, which has been linked to a variety of mental and physical health issues, including chronic inflammation, neurodegeneration, poor gut function, autoimmunity and cancer. We know this to be true now from research.
The vagus nerve is basically listening to the way we breathe, and it sends the brain and the heart whatever message our breath indicates. Breathing slowly, for instance, reduces the oxygen demands of the heart muscle (the myocardium), and our heart rate drops.
It’s actually our exhale breath that triggers the vagal response or relaxation response. Vagal activity is highest, and heart rate lowest, when you’re exhaling.
I have recently become interested in HRV which is heart rate variability, one of the measurements on my oura ring and a much more accurate measurement of the body’s stress levels, performance when exercising and recovery from exercise, than the heart rate. This is in fact the length of time between heart beats. It is said that the HRV is a really good measure of your vagal tone. Intermittent fasting is noted as one way to improve vagal tone and I have noticed according to my Oura ring how my HRV has increased since I have started intermitent fasting. With HRV, we don’t look at the daily trend as it goes up and down but it is the weekly trend that is interesting. The greater this variability is, the more “ready” your body is, the better you perform in exercise and the better you will recover from strenuous exercise. The higher your vagal tone, the less stressed we are and therefore, less inflammation, which is obviously what we want for longevity and long term abundant health.
In fact, stimulating the Vagus nerve both manually and with electricity has been used to control seizures in epilepsy patients, reduce inflammation and treat clinical depression. I even saw a recent randomized control trial on vagal stimulation in May just gone with regard to Covid 19. It will be interesting to see the findings when they are published.
- Laughing & smiling – We know a good old belly laugh is good for the soul but laughing actually stimulates diaphramatic breathing and triggers the vagus nerve. Just 10 minutes of laughter is enough to trigger mental and physical benefits. Sounds good to me!
- Singing – The Vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can stimulate your vagus nerve. Ooommmm!
- Yoga – What specific asana are best for stimulating the vagus nerve? Inversions like downward facing dog, supported bridge, legs up the wall or headstand with the head below the heart help improve vagal tone. Backbends help to open the flow of energy to the lungs and the heart and slow flow or yin yoga poses can help.
- Acupuncture – Studies have shown that acupuncture stimulation transmits signals into the vagus nerve and mediates anti-inflammatory responses in the spleen.
- Cold water swimming – There it is again! It doesn’t have to be sea swimming. It can be a cold shower daily to improve vagal tone!
- Meditation and Slow breathing – This is key in improving vagal tone. Practise deep breathing regularly I have a video on youtube on 2 deep breathing practises you can try. Join the Ryse hold community under free downloads to try them. Simply counting on the inhale and the exhale also with your hand on your abdomen, to make sure you are belly breathing. Keep the exhale longer than the inhale breath.
- Intermittent fasting – As I said. I have tracked this myself and have seen and obvious improvement in HRV on my Oura ring since I started my most recent intermittent fast. It went from 46, continuously improving to 57 since I started my most recent time restricted eating The effects of fasting on the vagus nerve affect the hunger hormone, ghrelin.
- Red light therapy – You may have heard of red light therapy for reducing inflammation, infra red heat. Companies like red light rising sell red lights for home and business or infra red sauna’s.
- Diet– The vagus nerve uses neurotransmitters called acetylcholine as messengers to relay information along its superhighway. To make acetylcholine, we need choline in the diet, which is found in egg yolks. Offal is also a good source, such as liver and kidneys. In either case, I would recommend an organic, pasture-fed source. For a vegan option, lecithin granules are great to sprinkle onto foods and into smoothies. You can also ensure an adequate intake of L-acetyl carnitine in meat (again grass fed organic) vitamin B5 in Broccoli, Chard, squash, sunflower seeds or alpha-lipoic acid in Offal and grass fed meat to help with acetylcholine production. Vegetarian and those who eat low amounts of meat can make L-acetyl carnitine from 2 amino acids: lysine and methionine – fish and spirulina are good sources.
I listened to some interesting online talks or docu-series about the Vagus nerve recently. In fact there was a whole online summit on the Vagus nerve alone with different speakers. Too much to go into in great detail here but to give you an idea of some of the areas covered and recent research to back them up.
- How dysfunctional sleep patterns affect the vagus nerve
- How EMF radiation from our devices affect vagal tone negatively
- Environmental toxins and Vagus nerve function
- Heart Rate Variability as a Measure of Vagus Function
- Optimizing Vagus Function to Promote Healing
- Connecting the Vagus Nerve, Emotions and Gut Function
- Microbiome and Vagus Nerve Connection
- Link between Liver, Gallbladder and Vagus Function
- Impact of Vagus Dysfunction on Inflammation and Autoimmunity
- Supporting the Gut-Brain Axis with Intermittent Fasting
- Vagus Nerve Stimulation with Essential Oils
- Effect of Sauna Therapy on Heart Rate Variability
- Foods That Lower Your Vagal Tone
- Eating Smart for Healthy Nerve Function
- In the brain, the vagus helps control anxiety and depression.
- In the gut, it increases stomach acidity, digestive juices, and gut flow.
- In the heart, it controls heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure. Vagus activation will lower the risk for heart disease and stroke.
- In the liver and pancreas, it helps controls glucose store and balance.
- In the gallbladder, it helps release bile, which can help you get rid of toxins and break down fat.
When it’s not working right, it can cause brain fog, neurotransmitter imbalances / mood disorders, digestive disorders, and more.