The Vagus Nerve, how it plays a role in your health, and how you can stimulate it
The vagus nerve, also known as the “wandering nerve,” is an intricate cranial nerve that starts in the brain and continues through the face, into the thorax (the chest region), and into the abdomen; this nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the human body, which consists of branches that stretch to the muscles in the neck and gastrointestinal system (Britannica 2020). The vagus nerve also happens to be the primary dictator of the parasympathetic nervous system—the division of the autonomic nervous system that controls your “fight-or-flight” response (Bergland 2016). When this nerve is stimulated, it acts to lower one’s heart rate and blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and help regulate digestion by releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (Bergland 2016; Britannica 2020).
Now, would you like to know what I think is the most amazing thing about the vagus nerve? You are able to manually stimulate it and produce a sense of relaxation! Here are a few ways to do so:
- Taking deep breaths
Think back to times you were anxious or panicked. Maybe someone was telling you to “just breathe” or “take a few deep breaths.” The reason for taking a deep breath when you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious is because the physical act of breathing in and out (deeply from the diaphragm versus shallow, short breaths) stimulates the vagus nerve!
- Hum, speak or sing
The vagus nerve branches into the neck and onto the larynx, otherwise known as the voice box. By humming, talking, or singing, there is direct stimulation to the nerve. Additionally, the common practice of repeating a low-sounding intonation, such as the word “Om,” a mantra used during yoga or religious practices, can stimulate the nerve.
- Balance the microbiome in the digestive tract
Jordan Fallis reported that animals that were administered the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus exhibited “positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behavior,” (2017). GABA is a neurotransmitter that can increase the mood and have a calming influence upon the nervous system (WebMD 2019).
These are just a couple of ways you are able to activate your vagus nerve in order to receive its benefits. It is truly astounding how the human body comes equipped with self-soothing tools, few of which we take advantage of and understand the root of their function.
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