How I Came to Learn about the Vagus Nerve
The first time I ever heard of the vagus nerve was from my neurologist. I had been diagnosed with chronic migraine and subsequently referred to a specialist who was explaining the body mechanisms related to the condition. I had explained how for me a typical migraine would wake me from a dead sleep at around 3:00 am with a blinding pain behind my right eye and last for up to 3 days. I also told her how during the day leading up to the migraine I would always notice strange stomach distress on the same side of my body as the migraine and it would feel as if the migraine moved from my gut up the side of my chest, before settling in my neck under my jaw before exploding in out of my eyeball. As the neurologist explained to me the pathways and intricacies of the vagus nerve I finally started to understand how a migraine could start in my abdomen and travel up my chest, and into my neck, and jaw before reaching my eye.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
So what is the vagus nerve? First of all, the pronunciation – it sounds like ‘vegas’ as in the city of Las Vegas. The spelling comes from the word ‘vagrant’ or ‘vagabond’ and it was the Greeks who gave it the name vagus because it was “the wandering nerve.” It is the longest nerve in your body and it travels from head to gut and connects major organs and digestive systems to the brain. Look at this picture to get a better idea of the vagus nerve’s extensive “wandering” path through the body.
Wow. Look at all those connections in the abdomen. Because of the stomach distress prior to a migraine, I long suspected maybe it was something I was eating that caused them and I resorted to all kinds of restrictive diets to try to figure out the culprit but it turns out it was the vagus nerve all along. This also explained for me why when a migraine began to retreat I would first feel relief in my stomach where I would sense a kind of ‘release’ prior to the headache lifting.
Why would a nerve that starts in the brainstem travel throughout the body and end in the gut? Well, it turns out that the reason it’s so extensive is because the vagus nerve is a fundamental part of our parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of the ‘rest and digest’ body functions. It is the companion “off” switch to our sympathetic nervous system which is in charge of the ‘fight or flight’ response that fills us with adrenaline when we sense danger. Since the parasympathetic is the one that calms us once a threat has passed it influences your heart rate, breathing rate and digestive function by interacting with a number of vital organs or systems, including the heart, lungs, gut, liver, spleen and kidneys. It is perhaps the most important mind-body connector and the vast and deep connection between the vagus nerve and all the major organs and systems is why stimulating the vagus nerve will also affect automatic processes such the heart rate, breathing rate, and gut muscle contractions.
A Healthy Vagal Response
OK. So I’ve got a vagus nerve. Cool. So what? It deals with automatic responses, so what, if anything, can I do to affect it? And by the way, what is a healthy vagus nerve? And what would the benefits of a healthy vagus nerve be? Well, what you really need to focus on here is what is known as the “tone” of your vagus nerve. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Basically, increasing your vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health.¹ In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa. Good vagal tone reduces stress as it reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the time variability between heartbeats and when your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high.
A healthy vagal response is important to mitigate stress as well as be more healthy overall. The exciting news is that we have the power to directly access our vagus nerve as a way to stimulate the automatic “rest and digest” function and thereby instantly de-stress.
Why Stimulate the Vagus Nerve?
For most of us, the main reason to want to manipulate the vagal nerve would simply be to fully relax. When we stimulate the vagus nerve it tells the parasympathetic nervous system that everything is ok, you are safe, nothing is going to ‘get you’ and so your body and muscles can unwind completely. In our modern world of constant time pressures, money stress, and societal dysfunction it’s easy to see how we can end up in a constant state of fight or flight, without even realizing it. But realize it or not, suffering the effects of an overstimulated nervous system can lead to a wide variety of mental and physical debilitations. Possible results include chronic fatigue, depression, increased blood pressure, anxiety, digestive problems, and for some like me, migraines. With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why a non-drug form of ‘’chill pill’ that you can access anytime, anywhere, would be something worthwhile to explore.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Methods
The earliest documentation of vagal stimulation was done by the Greeks. They found that massaging the carotid artery in the neck caused the heart rate and blood pressure to lower with a very pronounced effect and so they dubbed it ‘the site of sleep.’ However, it was actually the stimulation of the vagus nerve that runs right alongside the carotid artery that caused the effect. Although this is the first known vagal stimulation method, we are now aware of several other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve in order to induce a relaxation response.
Carotid massage is still as valid and powerful a method of vagus nerve stimulation today as it was when the Greeks used it. You can stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging the area around the carotid sinus, located along the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. Tilt your head back and apply gentle pressure with two fingers for about 5-10 seconds near the angle of the jawline area where the pulse is the strongest in the neck. Rub in a circular motion. It may be helpful to use a massage oil like Ritual from Cordial Organics to help the fingers slide easily.
Deep Slow Breathing
Deep, slow breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve ² To take a complete breath, inhale slowly by pulling the breath down with the diaphragm and fill the bottom of your stomach first before expanding it outward and then lifting the lower and upper chest and finally expanding up into the collarbones. Slowly release the breath starting with the collarbones and chest first and then gently pulling the stomach toward the spine at the end of the exhale. Feel yourself relax as you continue deep, slow and steady complete breathing. Aim for 5 – 7 breaths a minute. For added vagal stimulation, as you exhale, you can constrict the throat slightly to produce a sound like you are trying to fog glass (the HHH sound)
The ear is the only place where the vagus nerve reaches the surface of the body. Stimulating the vagus nerve via the ear is primarily done by acupuncture. There are also electronic stimulators that you can connect to the outer ear. However you can also gently stimulate sensation in the ear’s vagus-innervated areas by gentle touch, pressure, or light traction on the ear’s inner helix, the concha (deepest bowl), ear canal, and the scalp just behind the ears. As with massaging the neck, use of a massage oil such as Cordial Organic Ritual Oil will help facilitate ear based vagal stimulation.
Healthy gut bacteria leads to improvement of brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. “Studies have shown that these vagal-mediated effects are influenced by gut bacteria. Specific bacterial strains have been demonstrated to utilize vagus nerve signaling to communicate with the brain and to alter behavior.” ³ One probiotic In particular, Bifidobacterium longum has anti anxiety effects during low grade gut inflammation. ⁴ There is also exciting new evidence pointing toward the ability of CBD to greatly enhance the absorption of probiotics in the gut. Because cannabinoids are lipids, (made of fats) they can withstand abrasive stomach acids. These fats absorb nutrients, essential minerals, and probiotic bacteria and evidence is beginning to show that CBD oil taken with probiotics might positively influence probiotic colonization and improve gut health. For the highest quality CBD oil we recommend the Cordial Organics brand Balance.
Singing, Humming, Chanting, Gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to the throat muscles and vocal cords and so you can stimulate it by activities that involve moving these. Singing, humming, and chanting, are all easy activities to do in the shower in the morning or the car on the way to work to help increase vagal tone and prepare you for stresses the day may bring. Try gargling the last swallow of water when you are having a glass.
It takes two forms. In one form, simply pinch your nose closed and close your mouth. Then, try to exhale forcefully for about 20 seconds. The other form of a Valsalva maneuver also starts by holding your breath. While holding your breath, bear down as though you were having a bowel movement. Try to hold this position for 20 seconds.
Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve ⁵ Cold showers and running around underdressed for the weather are possible routes. Find a way to freeze your butt off and you can get a healthier vagal response.
This one really needs no explanation. A healthy body translates into a healthy vagus nerve and healthy vagal tone. The best exercise to do is the one you enjoy doing and will do on a regular basis. If you haven’t found it, find it! I personally like yoga, pilates and other bodyweight strength exercises. It really doesn’t matter much what you do as long as you are moving and getting your heart rate up.
Because stimulating the throat is good for your vagus nerve laughter is similar to singing, chanting and humming. But as the vagus nerve runs through your chest and abdomen as well, a good deep belly laugh is even more beneficial. That blissed out euphoria we feel after a really good hard laugh is explained by this. Also as a rather odd sidenote, there is a form of yoga known as laughter yoga that might be worth checking out if you want to laugh, but you just can’t seem to find any humor in the world.
The Vagus Nerve and CBD
CBD has been well established as a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-seizure medication. Research is ongoing, however there are cannabinoid receptors directly on the vagus nerve and it can logically be expected that supplementing our own endocannabinoid system with external CBD will benefit vagal tone. There is much anecdotal evidence of this, but we must await further studies for science to confirm.
The vagus nerve is a powerful mind body connector that is in charge of relaxing the body. There are a number of methods to directly stimulate the vagus nerve to improve vagal tone which is important to manage the ravages of stress on the body. Vagus nerve stimulation is a highly accessible way to relax and unwind that everyone should be aware of. Explore and find methods that work for you and reap the benefits of a calmer, healthier life.
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