Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
Your nervous system is your body’s command center. Your nervous system guides almost everything you think, say, feel, or do. It controls complicated processes like movement, thought and memory. Your nervous system affects learning and feelings, as well as, every aspect of your health, including your:
- Heartbeat and breathing patterns.
- Response to stressful situations.
- The 5 Senses, how your brain interprets what you see, hear, taste, touch and feel.
Originating from your brain, a vast network of nerves sends electrical signals all over your body, to and from other cells, glands, and muscles. These nerves receive information from the world around you. Then the nerves interpret the information and control your response. It’s an enormous information superhighway connecting your brain to your body, and your body to your brain.
Our nervous system is a combination of fibers, chemicals and electrical signals that process up to 11 million bits of information a second.(1) One part of the nervous system is the Autonomic Nervous System, and the two main parts you’ve heard me talk about a lot in this course is the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, the stress response and the relaxation response.
The brain of course sends signals through the cranial nerves to the rest of the body. But the body also sends messages to the brain. An example being when you touch a hot pot the signal from the hand goes to brain saying “HOT POT” which sends back a signal to stop touching the hot pot. Our nervous system sends messages to our brain and the cells and organs of our body not only that we might be in danger but that we are safe as well.
The main nerve that really needs to be activated to send those signals of safety, calm and peace is the vagus nerve. Our vagus nerve is a main conduit of information sent back and forth between mind and body. It comes from our brain, connects to our eyes, ears, muscles of the mouth and jaw, spreads down the neck, connects to our throat, connects to our heart and lungs, and all the way to our gut, carrying information back and forth from our brain to body, and from our body to our brain. If we were to point to a physical representation of the mind/body connection, it would be the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system,(3) When we activate or stimulate the vagus nerve, or to use the fancy term, “improve the tone” of our vagus nerve we turn on the parasympathetic nervous system therefore turning off the sympathetic or stress response so we reduce anxiety and even physical pain, as well as, improved sleep patterns, and enjoy greater contentment and ability to connect.(2)
Now even though the vagus nerve is one of the great keys to turning on the parasympathetic nervous system, and turning off the stress response, for some reason it isn’t really talked about very much in terms of anxiety relief.
So in this lesson I want you to walk away with some real strategies for activating and stimulating your vagus nerve so you’ll be able to turn off the stress response and move into peace and calm within the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. Forbes magazine (of all places) calls the vagus nerve the body’s superpower since it can literally turn off the stress response, and counteract your fight/flight system.
Let’s start off with what the vagus nerve is.
Within your nervous system are 12 nerves that come out from the back of your brain and connect to various parts of your body. They send electrical signals between your brain, face, neck and torso. Your cranial nerves help you see, taste, smell, hear and feel sensations. We’re going to talk about the 10th cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, the longest and most complex nerve.
Vagus is latin for “wandering”, as this verve wanders through your body connecting your brain to your ears, eyes, throat and is responsible for many muscle movements in the mouth. It connects to all the major organs including your lungs, heart, stomach, digestive tract, spleen, liver, and uterus. About 100,000 fibers run up and down this nerve communicating and transmitting information back and forth.
Again, the vagus nerve is the physical representation of the mind-body connection, your mind and body being one unit, one system, this physically happens because of the vagus nerve. And information flows in both directions, so information from your gut, heart, lungs, all the organs gets sent to your brain through the vagus nerve as well as your brain communicating back to all your organs. In fact way more information is going from your gut, heart, lungs and other connection points to your brain and central nerevous system. In fact some research suggestion 80% of the fibers in the vagus nervous send information up to the brain.
This is really interesting because it would imply by activating various connection points you can send signals of calm, safety and relaxation to your brain. Remember one of the first lessons was about deep breathing with your abdomen, diaphragm and lungs. In other lessons we used bilateral stimulation with the eyes and the Wide Vision exercise where you expand your peripheral vision.
The vagus nerve does a lot of stuff. But a big part of the vagus nerve’s job to calm the body after a stressful moment because, as I said before, it’s the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. So it helps turn off the sympathetic nervous system, the stress response, therefore it helps keep anxiety and depression at bay within the brain. And you can’t have the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems on at the same time, you cannot have the stress response turned on at the same time you have the relaxation response turned on. You can’t be relaxed and stressed at the same time. Just like the light has to be on or off, the door opened or closed. It’s one or the other, not both at the same time.
As the vagus nerve exits the skull down the neck it stimulates most of the muscles of the pharynx and larynx, which are responsible for swallowing and vocalization. It is connected to your heart, lungs and gut, regulating breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Glenn Doyle puts it this way: “The vagus nerve is deeply plugged into our heart, our guts, and our voice. Whenever we turn inward to check in with our true feelings; to check in with our intuitive wisdom; or to find our true expressiveness, we’re lighting up the vagus nerve. Whenever our face reflects what we’re really feeling or experiencing, the vagus nerve is at work. Whenever we plug into the rhythms of ourselves or the world around us, we’re lighting up the vagus nerve. When we speak, shout, sing, the vagus nerve is lit up like a Christmas tree— which is one of the reasons why those activities can be so cathartic and emotional for so many of us.”
When talking about the vagus nerve you will probably hear about the “tone” of the vagus nerve. Vagus tone, sometimes called vagal tone, means the activation level or stimulation level of your vagus nerve. Saying you have high vagal tone means you’re in the parasympathetic nervous system, you have turned on the relaxation response. When your vagus nerve is not being stimulated, it is often said it has “low tone”, meaning you’re in the sympathetic nervous system, the stress response. Low vagal tone can contribute or even create issues such as anxiety, stress and worry, intestinal problems, depression, and eating related issues.
Increasing your vagal tone, or stimulating your vagus nerve, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. You are also more resilient and have an easier time pulling yourself through trauma and troubles. Healthy vagal tone means emotional regulation, greater connection, and better physical health as well. When your vagus nerve is stimulated or toned, you feel calmer, more compassionate, and clearer. It’s how you develop a healthy stress response and become more resilient, and create a resourceful state of mind and body.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your mental health will improve, the more your emotional health will improve, and your physical health.
And since it’s a loop, they’re all connected and communicating to each other, by improving your physical health, you improve your mental and emotional health, and the higher your vagal tone will be.
And therefore, by improving your mental and emotional health, you improve your physical health and the higher your vagal tone.
Now if your vagal tone is low, don’t worry – you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the stress, worry and anxiety being created by your brain.
In other words, you can strengthen and tone your vagus nerve, turning off the stress response and increasing your feelings of peace, calm and ease, and I’m going to share with you just how you can do that in just a minute.
By strengthening your vagus tone your can increase your health in many ways but here are a couple that specifically correspond with what we are working on in this training:
- High vagal tone has been shown to have an anti-depressant effect and it supports our mood a healthy mood
- High vagal nerve tones helps with healthy sleep
- And also improves learning as well as memory
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- Tindle J, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System. [Updated 2020 Nov 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553141/