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The Vagus Nerve: What You Need To Know

Mar 18, 2024 | Blog, Cognitive Health

Vagus Nerve

 

The vagus nerve doesn’t typically get a lot of attention in conventional medicine, but it actually plays a vital role in orchestrating your body’s response to stress and inflammation. And it doesn’t stop there: The vagus nerve also influences gut health,  immune function and more!

Poor vagus nerve tone can influence your overall quality of life, but it is difficult to diagnose a problem without proper knowledge of how this vital nerve functions. Let’s take a look at the role of the vagus nerve and how you can optimize your vagus nerve response.

 

 

Stress Response and the Vagus Nerve

 

To understand the role of the vagus nerve, it’s important to know how your body responds to stress. 

You’ve likely heard of the “flight or fight response.” When your mind senses a threat, your body responds by getting ready to flee danger or fight an opponent. Your sympathetic nervous system then kicks in and releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to speed up your heart, heighten alertness, and redirect energy to your muscles. 

When your mind senses the danger is over, the parasympathetic nervous system works to relax your body. Your breathing slows, muscles relax, and you feel more relaxed.

The problem is, that today’s stress is typically more chronic, so the parasympathetic system is inactive much of the time. When faced with chroniic stressors your body may end up in a chronic state of fight or flight, which can lead to hormonal problems.  You see your body has a very strong desire to survive and reproduce.  When stressed for too long it chooses survival over reproduction and hormones get all out of whack.  

The vagus nerve plays a role in the response of your parasympathetic nervous system. But when it can’t communicate well with the parasympathetic nervous system to help calm your body well, you can exist in a fight-or-flight state for way too long, which carries far-reaching health implications beyond hormonal imbalances.

Because it delivers messages from your brain to your gut, it also plays a vital role in the gut-brain axis. 

The gut-brain axis refers to the two-way communication network between your gut and your brain. This complex network plays a role in many components of well-being, including your digestion, immune responses, and emotional health.

 

 

Signs of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction

 

“Vagus” is derived from the Latin word for wandering, perhaps because it’s the longest cranial nerve and “wanders” into many parts of the body. As a result, it influences many bodily functions. Damage to your vagus nerve can impact your digestive system. An overly sensitive vagus nerve can also lead to fluctuations in blood pressure or heartbeat with the result of fainting. 

Other signs of vagus nerve problems include:

  • Bloating
  • Unexplained pain in the belly
  • A hoarse voice
  • Nausea
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Acid reflux
  • Feelings of dizziness or vertigo
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or joint pain

 

New research even suggests many people experiencing “long Covid” have poor vagus nerve tone, and that damage to the nerve from a Covid infection is a contributing factor to the prolonged symptoms.

 

 

Natural Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

 

Regularly stimulating the vagus nerve helps maintain a crucial balance between our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. This balance influences heart rate, digestion, stress response, and inflammation levels, promoting overall well-being. By fine-tuning this balance, vagus nerve stimulation fosters a calmer nervous system, reduces stress, improves digestion, and supports mental and physical health.

Here are some natural ways to improve vagal nerve tone:

 

1 – Deep breathing

Every deep breath sends a positive signal to your parasympathetic nervous system letting it know you aren’t in danger. Try to develop a pattern where your exhales are twice as long as your inhales – two counts in, four counts out, for example. 

 

2 – Meditation

The relaxation response triggered by meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn helps the vagus nerve.

 

3 – Try a cold plunge

A dip into a cold lake or pool can have positive effects on your nervous system. If you don’t like the idea of a chilly swim, ending your shower with a minute or two of cold water has a similar effect. Some people should avoid the shock of cold water, so clear this with a healthcare practitioner first, particularly if you have heart problems. 

 

4 – Lose any excess weight

Carrying extra pounds can have a detrimental effect on your vagus nerve. This can be a bit of a Catch-22: poor vagus nerve function can make it harder to realize you’re full, which can lead to overeating. 

The best approach is a natural foods diet that doesn’t stress your body and is sustainable over the long haul. We can help you find an approach that works for you!

 

5 – Eat the right foods

Studies have found that foods high in tryptophan can help reduce inflammation in the nervous system. Good sources of tryptophan include nuts, turkey, leafy greens, and bananas.

Excess sugar consumption can trigger inflammation and hurt nerve function, so work to reduce sweets from your diet (and that includes sweet drinks!)

Because of its role in the gut-brain axis, a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps support your vagus nerve function. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and natural yogurt contain beneficial probiotics your gut needs to thrive!

 

6 – Try intermittent fasting.

Research shows that restricting meals to certain windows can improve vagus nerve function. It’s important to work with your healthcare practitioner to determine if fasting works for you. 

 

7 – Gargling or singing

Activities that involve the muscles in the back of your throat, like gargling or singing, activate the vagus nerve, contributing to its stimulation and relaxation response.

 

8 – Massage or Acupuncture

Therapies like massage or acupuncture can trigger the vagus nerve by stimulating specific pressure points, contributing to relaxation and improved mood.

Don’t overlook the importance of your vagus nerve in maintaining overall wellness! Its role in regulating your body’s nervous system is key to managing stress, digestion, inflammation, and more. If you’re eager to explore effective ways of enhancing your nervous system function and optimizing your well-being, We’re here to guide you. Your well-being starts with a conversation—let’s get started!

 

Sources

Gottfried-Blackmore A, Adler EP, Fernandez-Becker N, Clarke J, Habtezion A, Nguyen L. Open-label pilot study: Non-invasive vagal nerve stimulation improves symptoms and gastric emptying in patients with idiopathic gastroparesis. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2020 Apr;32(4):e13769. doi: 10.1111/nmo.13769. Epub 2019 Dec 5. PMID: 31802596; PMCID: PMC8054632

Eureka Alert, European Society of Clinical Microbiolgoy and Infectious Diseases,
“Pilot study suggests long COVID could be linked to the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the vagus nerve” https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/943102

Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017 Jun 6;8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. PMID: 28626434; PMCID: PMC5455070.

Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018 Mar 13;9:44. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044. PMID: 29593576; PMCID: PMC5859128.

Wang Y, Kondo T, Suzukamo Y, Oouchida Y, Izumi S. Vagal nerve regulation is essential for the increase in gastric motility in response to mild exercise. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2010 Oct;222(2):155-63. doi: 10.1620/tjem.222.155. PMID: 20948179.

Mäkinen TM, Mäntysaari M, Pääkkönen T, Jokelainen J, Palinkas LA, Hassi J, Leppäluoto J, Tahvanainen K, Rintamäki H. Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2008 Sep;79(9):875-82. doi: 10.3357/asem.2235.2008. PMID: 18785356.

Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Oct 9;12:397. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397. PMID: 30356789; PMCID: PMC6189422.

Forsythe P, Bienenstock J, Kunze WA. Vagal pathways for microbiome-brain-gut axis communication. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:115-33. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_5. PMID: 24997031.

Khasar SG, Reichling DB, Green PG, Isenberg WM, Levine JD. Fasting is a physiological stimulus of vagus-mediated enhancement of nociception in the female rat. Neuroscience. 2003;119(1):215-21. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4522(03)00136-2. PMID: 12763082.

Ellis RJ, Thayer JF. Music and Autonomic Nervous System (Dys)function. Music Percept. 2010 Apr;27(4):317-326. doi: 10.1525/mp.2010.27.4.317. PMID: 21197136; PMCID: PMC3011183.

Wang Y, Kondo T, Suzukamo Y, Oouchida Y, Izumi S. Vagal nerve regulation is essential for the increase in gastric motility in response to mild exercise. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2010 Oct;222(2):155-63. doi: 10.1620/tjem.222.155. PMID: 20948179.

Vickhoff B, Malmgren H, Aström R, Nyberg G, Ekström SR, Engwall M, Snygg J, Nilsson M, Jörnsten R. Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Front Psychol. 2013 Jul 9;4:334. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334. Erratum in: Front Psychol. 2013 Sep 05;4:599. PMID: 23847555; PMCID: PMC3705176.

Laine Green A, Weaver DF. Vagal stimulation by manual carotid sinus massage to acutely suppress seizures. J Clin Neurosci. 2014 Jan;21(1):179-80. doi: 10.1016/j.jocn.2013.03.017. Epub 2013 Aug 17. PMID: 23962632.

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