The what? Yep, the vagus nerve, and here's how it's a big deal for your wellbeing!
he vagus nerve! It’s our longest nerve, extending from the brain stem down to the colon, and branching out to the heart, lungs, stomach and intestines along the way like a system of roots or cables.
Most of us are familiar with the mind-body connection, but not many people realise that this direct line between the brain and the gut is the magical mediator between thinking and feeling.
Also known as the 'wandering nerve,’ the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system.
By sending and receiving feedback between our major organs and our brain, it regulates the involuntary process that affect our mood, digestion, stress response, heart rate, and more.
It’s a pretty big deal. However, it’s only relatively recently that the vagus nerve has started getting the credit it deserves.
We’re now realising that taking care of this long, wandering nerve is the key to our wellbeing. Knowledge is power, and these 6 facts about your vagus nerve can help you rewire your wellness!
It’s that 'gut feeling’
Have you ever had a gut feeling? Did you feel compelled to listen to what your body was telling you? As humans, we’ve been aware of our intuition for eons, but the knowledge that the vagus nerve was responsible for this phenomenon is still pretty new to us.
The vagus nerve is what enables your brain and gut to communicate, so next time you decide to 'trust your gut,’ you’re really trusting your vagus nerve!
HRV is now seen as one of the most important metrics across the health and fitness industries
It’s in a relationship with your heart
Our vagus nerve activity is measured in terms of 'vagal tone,’ with high vagal tone being associated with good physical and mental health, and low vagal tone indicating poor health.
The relationship between the vagus nerve and the heart is so strong that we can measure our vagal tone by tracking our heart rate variability (HRV), which is the variation in time between each heartbeat. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but this data can mean the difference between barely surviving and totally thriving.
When your HRV is high, your vagal tone is also high. The vagus nerve slows down your heart rate by stimulating the sinoatrial node to release a hormone called acetylcholine, but if you have low vagal tone, your heart rate stays elevated with lower variability.
HRV is now seen as one of the most important metrics across the health and fitness industries. Here’s how to track it!
It prevents inflammation
An active vagus nerve is continually gathering information from around the body, and if it comes across inflammatory substances like cytokines, it sends a signal to the brain to release the anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters.
You see, inflammation is an important part of healing, but it’s supposed to be temporary. Once the healing work is done, a healthy and active vagus nerve will ensure that the inflammatory response is turned off. Low vagal tone, however, can lead to chronic inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases.
It makes our memories and helps us learn from experiences
The vagus nerve is the 'missing link’ between the hormone epinephrine outside the brain and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine inside the brain. Experiencing fight or flight during a stressful situation, for example, affects the brain in a way that enhances our learning.
The vagus nerve releases norepinephrine into the brain. More specifically, into the amygdala, which organises and consolidates memories, while regulating our emotional responses. Yes, the vagus nerve plays a role in our past traumas and present emotional triggers.
When it’s overstimulated, you can faint
When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, your blood pressure and heart drop abruptly, and the blood vessels in your legs dilate, reducing the blood flow to your brain.
Blurred or tunnel vision, dizziness, feeling hot, light-headedness, nausea, ringing in your ears, cold and clammy skin, sweating and turning pale; the feeling that you’re about to faint is awful!
There are many internal and external factors that can overstimulate the vagus nerve and lead to fainting, which is also known as vasovagal syncope. Some of these triggers include emotional stress, fear, heat, pain, standing up too quickly, standing for too long, the sight of blood, and for sufferers of IBS or gastrointestinal illness, having a bowel movement can trigger the vagal response!
When we stimulate our vagus nerve, we send a message to our mind and body that it’s time to relax and repair
You can rewire your wellness with DIY vagus nerve stimulation
Knowledge is power; there’s no need to let our mind or our body control us. By understanding the role of the vagus nerve, we can learn to work with and influence our nervous system to improve our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
When we stimulate our vagus nerve, we send a message to our mind and body that it’s time to relax and repair. Here’s how:
- Try cold showers or ice baths: Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water. See how you feel - you might decide it’s worth working your way up to longer periods of time to experience even better results!
- Take slow, deep breaths: The reason deep breathing immediately relaxes the body is because it stimulates the vagus nerve to turn off the flight or flight response. Taking 10 to 14 breaths per minute is the norm, but if we slow it down to about 6 breaths per minute, we can relieve stress in a matter of minutes.
- Take care of your gut health: The vagus nerve is constantly sending messages from your gut to your brain (and vice versa). This is the reason why gut health affects so many other aspects of our wellbeing. Here are some more reasons why prioritising gut health is so important!
- Exercise your vocal cords: The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting, and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve, increase heart-rate variability and improve vagal tone.
- Meditate: Research shows that mindfulness and meditation increase vagal tone, along with positive emotions and self-love.
- Laugh and socialise: Having a good time with the people you love lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and this happens through vagus nerve stimulation. Laughter has been shown to increase HRV and improve mood, and even reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone!
- Get a massage: The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Reflexology foot massages have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability while decreasing the fight or flight response.
- Exercise regularly: One of the reasons that staying fit is so good for our mental health is that exercise stimulates the vagus nerve. Lifting heavy weights, going for long walks and interval training is a great combination of physical activities for a high HRV and healthy vagus nerve.
- Get your omega-3 fatty acids: These are the essential fats that your body cannot produce itself but are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system. To keep our heart rate low, and our HRV high, we need to make sure we’re getting omega 3’s from dietary sources, such as hemp seeds, chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, flax seeds, and walnuts, as well as health supplements such as Tropeaka Lean Protein.
Practising and prioritising some of these DIY tips will help you instantly rewire your wellbeing, and enjoy excellent health and fitness in the long-term!