The vagus nerve is part of your body you may have never even heard of, but it’s a gamechanger for your health. It counteracts your body’s fight or flight system and affects everything from your cough and gag reflexes to how well your body digests food. Issues with your vagus nerve can have serious consequences. Read on as we break down what you should know about the vagus nerve and the role it plays in your mental and physical health.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve, sometimes called the pneumogastric nerve, is your body’s longest cranial nerve, running from your brain to your colon. It’s actually made up of a left and right nerve but is commonly referred to as the vagus nerve.
What does the vagus nerve do? It performs sensory, special sensory, motor, and parasympathetic functions and innervates the heart, airways, lungs, major blood vessels, esophagus, intestines, and stomach.
The vagus nerve helps with the following processes.
- Heart rate
- Respiratory rate
- Involuntary actions like coughing or sneezing
- Blood pressure
A healthy vagus nerve, often called vagal tone, helps you regulate your emotions, increase your resilience, and enjoy better physical health.
How the Vagus Nerve Affects Your Health
Because the nerve is so long and touches so many of your body’s systems, any damage to it can cause adverse symptoms, including changes to voice, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Vagus nerve damage can cause gastroparesis, leading to the stomach being unable to empty itself of food properly. Symptoms include nausea, acid reflux, weight changes, and blood sugar fluctuation.
The vagus nerve stimulates specific heart muscles to help slow its rate. When overstimulated, it can lead to sudden decreased blood pressure and heart rate, causing fainting, also called vasovagal syncope. In addition, you may experience nausea, excessive sweating, and tunnel vision.
The vagus nerve allows you to feel empathy, contributes to “gut feelings,” and is mood modulating and emotion regulating. Your emotional intuition travels via signals that go to your brain via the vagus nerve, while messages that move from the brain to the organs help create inner calm. The vagus nerve allows your body to respond to sensed threats and relax when confronted with comforting situations and is the key component of the autonomic nervous system that controls our internal organs.
How to Improve Vagus Nerve Function
In addition to vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), there are many noninvasive ways to activate the nerve and improve vagal tone.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)
The vagus nerve is essential to health, but how do you help it function? VNS is a promising procedure that uses an internally placed device similar to a pacemaker to send electrical impulses to the brain from the left vagus nerve. This can be done in combination with therapy and medication.
FDA-approved uses of VNS include treatment for epilepsy, migraines, and depression. Future applications of VNS could include treatment for multiple sclerosis, posterior autoimmune uveitis, cluster headaches, post-traumatic stress disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Research also suggests that non-invasive VNS combined with rehabilitation could improve muscle function in chronic stroke patients.
Focusing on your breathing can help move the diaphragm and encourage the vagus nerve to restore your body’s sense of calm. Box breathing, also known as four-square breathing, is commonly used by Navy Seals and is available to everyone at any time. To box breathe, exhale to a count of four, hold your lungs empty for a four-count, inhale at the same pace, and hold air in your lungs for a count of four before exhaling. Repeat this cycle four times as needed throughout your day.
A classic vagal maneuver includes dipping your face in ice water or resting a plastic ice water-filled bag on your forehead and cheeks to engage what’s known as the diving reflect and engage the vagus nerve. Coughing or bearing down like you would during a bowel movement stimulates the vagus nerve by expanding the stomach.
The vagus nerve affects the vocal cord, which can be stimulated through emphatic sounds like singing or humming. Doing these activities in a group stimulates the vagus nerve even more. Similarly, gargling causes your throat muscles to close, activating the nerve.
Any body movement helps activate the vagus nerve, whose neural pathways are interconnected with posture and balance. Dancing is the perfect exercise to continually change posture while maintaining and strengthening your balance.
Faithfully Guided Is All About Your Health
The bottom line about this all-important nerve is that it plays a significant role in your brain-gut axis — which is also essential to functional brain health — and a healthy vagal tone helps control inflammation, maintain intestinal balance, regulate food intake and energy levels, and prevent obesity and other stress-induced inflammatory illnesses.
At Faithfully Guided, we are passionate about providing resources and support to help you live your most abundant life. To learn more about how the vagus nerve impacts your health or get started with our whole-person approach to health, reach out to our team today.