How The Vagus Nerve Positively Boosts Your Well-being

Hummingbirds are a mystery. They're tiny, and their hearts beat incredibly fast. All zoological rules dictate their lives should be drastically short. But, these bright little birds defy biological science by living five times the length their heart-fluttering physiques suggest.

Why? It may have something to do with their ‘resonance’. Hummingbirds ‘vibrate’ while hovering at around 50 HZ. And resonance (as we'll see) can affect the vagus nerve. This nerve is a neural highway running throughout the lengths of our bodies. It's becoming clear that stimulating the vagus nerve, and improving ‘vagal tone’ can enhance both physical and mental health.

It can improve everything from figure to lifespan. The vagus nerve, or “The self-care nerve” [1] is known as “The future of medicine” [2]. It could hold the key to an astonishing number of modern ailments. Learning to utilize its powers is a must for anyone who cares about their health.

What Is The Vagus Nerve And What Does It Do?

Vagus in Greek means “wanderer” or “traveller”. It’s the perfect name for this special nerve, which “travels” throughout the body, taking in more or less everything as it goes. It begins in the brainstem before heading down and into the front of the neck via the carotid artery sheath.

The vagus nerve travels into the body, passing the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the reproductive system, and many other organs. It takes readings from each and passes on messages from the brain, like a neuronal superhighway. As the largest nerve in the body, it covers a stunning amount of ground.

There’s little going on in your internal organs in which the vagus nerve is not involved. Interestingly, it provides an alternative link between the brain and the genitals. Many with spinal cord injuries are able to achieve sexual pleasure thanks to the vagus nerve.

The Vagus Nerve And The Autonomic Nervous System

We tend to think of the human nervous system as a single entity. In fact, it consists of many interlocking elements. Of these, the most important for our purposes is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS controls ‘autonomous’ functions, i.e. those you have little to no conscious control.

Things like heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, the subconscious aspect of breathing and so on all come under the ANS.

The ANS comprises three main elements: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), and the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The SNS is responsible for the so-called ‘fight or flight’ reaction. It's the SNS which causes our body’s instinctive response to danger. It increases the heart rate, pumps up the lungs, diverting blood from organs to muscles. This floods the body with oxygen, and triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol.

The ENS is concerned with how the intestines function (although digestion has its own independent reflex activity). It has a role to play in communication with the central nervous system.

The PNS is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ system. It calms the body by bringing down heart and breathing rates. It re-diverts bodily resources to the vital organs, allowing the deeper autonomous systems (such as digestion) to work at full capacity. The vagus nerve provides the vital communication highway to help these systems operate. It acts as the ‘central switchboard’ of the ANS.

Fight Or Flight Vs Rest And Digest

The SNS, though essential for survival, is not designed to remain active for long periods. But, when needed in an emergency it has to come on-line immediately. Consequently, the SNS is always at the ready, held back only by the ‘braking’ effect of the PNS. The ‘fight or flight’ reaction involves pumping up the muscles, giving the individual a shot of energy, and dulling the pain response.

In theory, it should last long enough to let the person fight or flee from a potentially dangerous situation. At this point it should be extinguished. In order to achieve this (theoretically) temporary ‘boost’, the SNS diverts resources from the organs and deeper autonomous systems. This powers the muscles and heightens the sensory responses.

Needless to say, too long spent in a ‘fight or flight’ state does the vital organs no good at all. Sadly, modern stressors are not as temporary as the threats our SNS evolved to protect us from. Our SNS cannot distinguish between physical and psychological distress [3].

Stressors of the modern age frequently leave people in a prolonged and highly damaging state of persistent ‘fight or flight’. To combat this, we must return the body to a more natural resting state of ‘rest and digest’. This is achieved through stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Parasympathetic Vagal Response

Stimulating the vagus nerve can ‘wake up’ the PNS. This then goes to work in various beneficial ways. Stomach acid and digestive enzyme production increases, ensuring the proper and sustained absorption of vital nutrients. Blood pressure is lowered. The immune system is properly regulated. Hormones and enzymes like oxytocin and acetylcholine are stimulated, aiding the body’s general health and improving psychological wellbeing.

But it doesn't stop there.

Studies show the vagus nerve is capable of taking readings from the micro-biome. Then triggering responses depending upon the results of its findings [4].

Further, it will mobilize anxiogenic (anxiety-causing) and anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) effects in response to certain stimuli. Here we see the powerful potential for mood-alteration that comes with vagal nerve stimulation [5].

There's even a school of thought that learning to control the vagus nerve allows you to control inflammatory responses [6]. This effectively slows cellular breakdown, reducing the effects of ageing. This is a far better alternative to treating pain and inflammation than often dangerous analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs [7].

Some have taken this anti-inflammatory theory further, suggesting the vagus nerve can ‘plug’ into the body’s latent stem cells. Implying that one can not only slow cellular decay, via the vagus nerve, but can actually stimulate a degree of cellular regeneration.

Vagal Tone

The effectiveness of stimulating the vagus nerve depends greatly on the vagal tone. Vagal tone refers to the strength, speed, and efficiency of the vagus nerve response.

This can be tested via an electrocardiogram, which measures the differential between heart rate during out and in breaths. A high differential indicates high vagal tone.

Improving Vagal Tone

High vagal tone is associated with more efficient blood glucose regulation, indicating a far lower risk of diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and so on. Low vagal tone is associated with chronic inflammation, raised stress levels, and cardiovascular problems among other things.

Vagal tone can be improved by practicing the stimulation of the vagus nerve. There are various ways in which this can be achieved, some more invasive than others. Since 1997, those suffering from conditions like acute migraines and epilepsy have sometimes been treated by the implantation of a Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS).

This works by using electric currents to stimulate the nerve, and patients frequently report an improvement in both physical and psychological health. Plus a significant reduction in seizures and/or migraines. It's also widely accepted that the use of a VNS can be useful for depression, bipolar disorder, and morbid obesity [8]

Non-Invasive Vagal Nerve Stimulation

The nerve can also be stimulated through less invasive procedures, with only slightly less dramatic results than those gained with a VNS.

For example, stimulating the nerve through carotid sinus massage has proven to suppress some kinds of seizure and reduce rapid heart rate [9]. Certain yogic techniques can also feed psychological information ‘backwards’ to the brain via the vagus nerve.

Just as psychological stimuli can cause a bodily ‘fight or flight’ reaction, so physical information can influence a psychological reaction. This physical information travels along the vagus nerve. Using techniques such as yogic breathing and smooth movements mimics symptoms of calm. This encourages the vagus nerve to feed back to the mind that all is well. The psyche consequently allows stress to seep away.

Humming And Hawing

One of the most interesting methods of stimulating the vagus nerve involves auditory vibration. Humming and rhythmic chanting have long been acknowledged meditative techniques, and are proven methods of stimulating the vagus nerve [10].

Gently expressed sounds, ideally heard through headphones in both ears, trigger a parasympathetic vagus nerve response. 

Vagal Tone Exercises

In terms of practical improvements, practicing self-caring meditative techniques are among the most effective non-invasive methods of improving your vagal tone. You’ll find a few suggestions below:

  • Humming: as mentioned, humming has a strong effect on the vagus nerve. Try combining humming with yogic/meditative breathing. Take deep, slow breaths in through the nose, and hum as you slowly breathe out. Focus on the vibrations of your hum in your ribs, your throat, your mouth and your cranium. Repeat until you feel relaxed. Communal singing, choir or prayer are also known to be beneficial, as is gargling.
  • Cold Water: in cases of high heart rate, you can stimulate your vagus nerve to bring the heart rate back down. You can do this through the simple method of plunging your face for 30-60 seconds into icy water. This promotes what is known as the ‘diving reflex’. The vagus nerve orders your heart rate to slow in order to conserve oxygen. The Dive Reflex, originally noted in cold water diving, is a first-rate vagus nerve stimulation method. It's capable of rapidly chilling down feelings of anxiety, panic, stress and body-wide inflammation as well as elevating moods. A large zip-lock plastic bag, filled with ice or ice cubes and applied from the scalp line to the lips will perform as well.

 

  • Meditation: the vagus nerve can be powerfully stimulated by calming and centering oneself via meditation. There are many meditative techniques, some active, some passive. Choosing the right one for you is largely a matter of trial and error. When you find one that works, consistently practiced meditation will quickly improve your vagal tone.

*NOTE: Sensate is not a medical device or form of VNS (Vagus Nerve Stimulation) but is a non-invasive advanced technology that uses sound to promote relaxation using your body's natural physiology. 

About the author

Stefan Chmelik has spent a lifetime in natural health and 30 years as a practitioner. He is founder of New Medicine Group, the UK’s premier integrated healthcare team, and is now focused on his new company BioSelf Technology, who are developing Sensate – wearable technology to enable anybody to experience the many benefits of relaxation-on-demand in the shortest possible time.

 

References

[1] Stephen Porges, “The polyvagal perspective”, Journal of Biological Psychology, Feb 2007;116-143

[2] Gaia Vince, “There’s a single nerve that connects all of your vital organs – and it might just be the future of medicine”, Business Insider, Jun 2015

[3] Christopher Bergland, “The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure”, Psychology Today, Feb 2013

[4] Forsythe P, Bienenstock J, Kunze WA.”Vagal pathways for microbiome-brain-gut axis communication”. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:115-33

[5] Kok, B, Fredrickson, B, Coffey, K, et al. “How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone”. Psychological Science 2013 24: 1123

[6] Valentin A Pavlov, Kevin J Tracey, “The vagus nerve and the inflammatory reflex – linking immunity and the metabolism”, Nature Reviews Endocrinology, Dec 2012;743-754

[7] Ann Fletcher, “What Do We Really Know About Treating Prescription Opioid Addiction?”, Rehabs.com, Feb 2016

[8]Pei-Jing Rong, Ji-Liang Fang, Li-Ping Wang, Hong Meng, Jun Liu, Ying-ge Ma, Hui Ben, Liang L1, Ru-Peng Liu, Zhan-Xia Huang, Yu-Feng Zhao, Xia Li, Bing Zhu, Jian Kong, “Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation for the treatment of depression: a study protocol for a double blinded randomized clinical trial”, BioMedCentral Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Nov 2012

[9] A Laine Green, Donald F Weaver, “Vagal stimulation by manual carotid sinus massage to acutely suppress seizures”, Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, Jan 2014;179-180

[10] Bangalore G KalyaniGanesan VenkatasubramanianRashmi ArasappaNaren P RaoSunil V KalmadyRishikesh V BehereHariprasad RaoMandapati K Vasudev, and Bangalore N Gangadhar2012Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study”, International Journal of Yoga, Jan-Jun 2011

[11] Harry Cheadle, “ASMR, the Good Feeling No One Can Explain”, Vice

About the author

Stefan Chmelik has spent a lifetime in natural health and 30 years as a practitioner. He is founder of New Medicine Group, the UK’s premier integrated healthcare team, and is now focussed on his new company BioSelf Technology, who are developing Sensate – wearable technology to enable anybody to experience the many benefits of relaxation-on-demand in the shortest possible time.

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