Understanding the Vagus Nerve: Not All Who Wander Are Lost
The vagus nerve has been around for a while — it’s part of the body, after all — but you might have recently started hearing more about it. The word “vagus,” which is Latin for “wander,” is a fitting name for this complex pathway connecting your head and your gut — a path also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Put simply, the parasympathetic nervous system controls your body while you’re not conscious of it — such as when you’re asleep or extremely relaxed. The system is responsible for controlling breath, digestion and other vital functions of the body. You’ve probably heard of the term “fight or flight” when it comes to your nervous system. Well, the parasympathetic system kicks in when there is no need to fight or flight — when your body can rest and be at ease.
Naturally, with all the hype about self-care, relaxation and ways to “chill out” circulating the internet, the vagus nerve has found a moment in the spotlight. However, the vagus nerve has been a star in the medical community for longer than that. According to the Q&A section of a 2006 Mental Health Letter by Harvard Health Publishing, “in the early 1990s, physicians began to notice that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve could reduce the rate of epileptic seizures. The treatment, known as vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), was approved by the FDA to treat seizures that do not respond to medications.” Furthermore, the same electrical stimulation that helps seizures can be useful for treating some cases of depression and anxiety.
An article in “Frontiers in Psychiatry,” published online in 2018, explains the role of the vagus nerve as follows:
“The most important function of the vagus nerve is afferent, bringing information of the inner organs, such as gut, liver, heart and lungs to the brain. This suggests that the inner organs are major sources of sensory information to the brain.”
In other words, your other organs are working together with the brain at all times and trading more information than you may realize. Calming the vagus nerve will calm your entire body.
So how can you send calming messages throughout your entire system, destress your body and perhaps even protect yourself from illness? Here are a few tips.
Singing, Humming and Chanting
The vagus nerve is connected to your throat and voice box, so singing, humming and chanting can kick it into action to calm you down.
Because the vagus nerve is responsible for gut health and digestion, anything you can do for gut health is great for the parasympathetic system. You can try plain yogurts and fermented foods as well as probiotic supplements.
Taking Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These fats are not naturally produced in your body, but they are essential for optimal brain and nerve function. To introduce omega-3s into your diet, eat plenty of fatty fish, such as sardines and tuna, or take a supplement.
Deep breathing is still a loyal stand-by on calming the vagus nerve. Meditation and slow, focused breaths can enhance relaxation and tell your body and mind to chill out.
Not a fan of crisp winter weather or chilly water? Maybe this will change your mind. The vagus nerve can be stimulated by cold exposure, as the neurons along the nerve are “charged” by cooler temperatures. Try a few seconds of cold water the next time you bathe or wash your face.
Socializing and Laughter
Believe it or not, being around people and sharing a few giggles can stimulate the vagus nerve to calm your internal organs and let your brain know everything is A-OK. So go ahead and have dinner with your closest friends or watch a comedy — it’s good for your health.
Written by: Denise K. James