Last week I discussed the role of the vagus nerve. It’s one of 12 cranial nerves in the body that help link the brain with the head, neck, torso, and the rest of the body. They originate in the brain and each has a different function that relates to sensation or movement. The vagus nerve has both. Research has shown tapping into the largest and longest cranial nerve in the body can affect both emotional and physical health.
It’s the most influential nerve in the parasympathetic system. By countering the fight or flight reflex it helps us to develop healthier ways to respond to stress and become resilient- able to recover and pull ourselves through trauma and troubles quickly.
When stimulated it:
- reduces cortisol levels
- helps to achieve homeostasis for all of our physiological functions
- improves absorption of nutrients and digestion
- decreases systemic inflammation
- improves short term memory
- produces feel good hormones like endorphins
- lowers blood pressure and heart rate
- boosts the immune system
- relieves anxiety
- stimulates stem cells
We become more compassionate, clearer, calmer, thoughtful, loving and relaxed. We just feel better overall. And that decreases our pain levels.
Here are some ways to tap into this super power on our own.
The moment we anticipate stress, for any reason, most of us hold our breath which then activates the fight or flight response. There are many ways to stop the cycle:
- Breathe in to the count of five. Hold to the count of five. Breath out to the count of five. Hold to the count of five. Repeat for several minutes.
- Breathe more deeply, by expanding the abdomen and feeling your chest expand as you inhale.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe in to the count of four and breathe out longer through your mouth to the count of eight. The longer exhale signals a state of relaxation by the vagus nerve , which further enhances relaxation.
Research shows we aren’t laughing because we’re happy, we are happy because we laugh. Whether real or fake, a good, long laugh lifts moods, boosts our immune system, and stimulates the vagus nerve. It does this by causing us to breathe deep within the diaphragm which then activates the parasympathetic nervous system. As written in past post laughing really is a great way to feel better and decrease pain. Ten minutes is enough to trigger mental and physical benefits.
An easy way to start the day off right is to gargle. When the water hits the back of your throat, the vagus nerve is activated. It’s a great way to start the day off right and help relax us when time for bed. Just gargle for 30 seconds after brushing your teeth.
Sing out loud
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and muscles at the back of the throat. That’s why singing is a great way to activate the vagus nerve. Focus on the vibrations and feel them in your throat and head. Then belt out a song wherever and whenever possible. It has tremendous benefits that lifts our mood, boosts the immune system, releases stress and helps us feel better.
- Foot. There are two acupressure points in the foot that activate the vagus nerve. Find the first one by drawing a line down from the fourth toe to just under the ball of the foot. The second is the pad of the big toe. Take a breathe in and then exhale while exerting medium pressure.
- Ear. Put your index finger in the inner ear by the opening to the ear canal. Massage gently in small circles. You can also place all four fingers pads above and behind both ears on the scalp and gently massage with circular movements as you move down to the earlobe. Gentle vibration works too. Have an electric toothbrush? Put it on gentle and use it behind the ear.
- Hands. Massaging the base of both the fourth and fifth digits as they enter the palm activates acupressure points related to the ear.
Cold immediately activates the vagus nerve which lowers heart rate in order to conserve oxygen, elevates mood and decreases inflammation.
- Put at least two thirds of both cheeks into cold water.
- Turn on cold water at the end of your shower
Both should last for 30-60 seconds.
The benefits of exercise can’t be stressed enough. Here’s another one to add to the list.
In rat studies, those exposed to chronic endurance training for twelve weeks showed:
- Exercised rats showed a significant increase in the diameter of unmyelinated vagal fibers
- There was an increase in the number of microtubules and neurofilaments per unit area in the myelinated fibers. This meant an increase in the transporting of substances within the axon which improved vagus nerve function.
Chanting Om, which causes a vibration in the throat and deep slow breaths both activate the vagus nerve, instilling a sense of calm and well-being. The vagus nerve then feeds this back to the brain, creating mindfulness and resilience during stressful times by allowing us quicker access to a peaceful, calmer place. This can be especially helpful when needing to quiet the mind and body in order to sleep.
Lie on your back with your hands behind your head.
Without turning your head, look to the right.
Remain until there’s a spontaneous yawn or swallow then return to neutral and looking straight ahead.
Repeat on the left side.
This time, when looking to the right with your eyes, tilt your head towards your shoulder.
Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Return to neutral, eyes straight ahead.
Repeat on other side.
Connect with others
Isolation breeds depression, worsening pain and poor health. As social creatures we require interactions and touch to survive. When we feel connected, we feel calm and safe. It also releases our own feel-good hormones as powerful as morphine and stimulates the vagus nerve which then promotes serenity, compassion and joy.
The vagus nerve stops the sympathetic nervous system from keeping us in a perpetual fight or flight mode, escalating pain. Instead, it taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts us in rest and digest mode. Only here can the body heal, rejuvenate and replenish. Allowing us to relax tense muscles, circulate life requiring nutrients to all body parts, boost immunity and ultimately feel safe and happy.