In Latin the word ‘vagus’ means wandering. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and ‘wanders’ throughout the body linking many of the organs to the brain. Originating from the brainstem it travels down the neck, through the ears, connecting to all the organs in the chest, abdomen and gut, to then flow back up again to the brain allowing relevant information to be provided. The body then responds as needed including decreasing inflammation, stimulating gut motility, producing digestive enzymes, reducing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure.
It is one of the most important nerves in the body and plays a big part in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our ‘rest and digest’ response that is so vital to our health and wellbeing. When we go into relax mode our body can heal and digest.
It needs to be regularly stimulated to maintain what is known as ‘vagal tone’. A well-toned vagus nerve means that, following a stressful situation which has sent us into ‘fight or flight’ mode, we can more quickly return to our ‘rest and digest’ relaxed state. We can more easily regulate blood sugar levels preventing the development of diabetes, reduce the risk of cardiovascular conditions and improve our digestion.
Low vagal tone can result in conditions such as:
- Addictive Behaviour
- Heart Disease
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Autoimmune diseases
How can we stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve to improve our vagal tone?
There are some everyday practices which, when done regularly, can be effective in developing good vagal tone, improve mood and develop a stronger resilience to stress.
- Splashing your face with cold water or having a cold shower
When the body has to adjust to the cold the ‘rest and digest’ response activates and increases. It feels super refreshing.
- Taking some deep abdominal breaths
Vagal tone is measured by the difference between the heart rate when we inhale compared to the heart rate when we exhale. Taking some long deep breaths into the belly is a great way to activate the vagus nerve and give ourselves an internal reassuring hug.
- Humming or Singing or Chanting
The vagus nerve is attached to the vocal cords and so singing a favourite tune feels good, not only because you like the song, but because you are working the neck muscles, sending out relaxing waves which in turn activates this all-important nerve. As encouraged in yoga, chanting the OM sound is really effective and helps us relax.
Allowing some time in the day for some focused mindfulness practice gives us an opportunity to check in with ourselves, connect with what we need and create more positive emotions.
- Maintaining a healthy gut
The organisms in the gut have a big influence on how we feel. By improving our microbiota with probiotics and better eating, the gut – vagus nerve – brain interaction will become much more positive.
“Our gut instincts are not fantasies but real nervous signals that guide much of our lives.”
Dr. Mark Sircus, acupuncturist, and doctor of Oriental and pastoral medicine.
We should always try to take life a little less seriously, find ways to play, have fun and giggle because it feels great and by toning the vagal nerve improves our health and happiness.
With the feet having over 7000 nerve endings, a Reflexology treatment is a fantastic way to access the nervous system to stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve. Offering a sense of calm and relieving pain it can support the body in functioning in a more optimum way. Working the vagus nerve points during a treatment feels incredibly soothing and leaves us feeling rather nice.