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Understanding the Vagus Nerve

Posted on June 5th, 2024 02:59 PM

What is the vagus nerve, and why is it important?

The latin origin of the word vagus literally means wandering so it is sometimes known as the wandering nerve It is the is the longest nerve in the body, running form the base of the brain and wandering through the neck and chest and stretching out to the digestive, immune and cardiovascular system. It acts at the main line of communication between the brain and other organs, in particular the digestive system -playing a major role in the  parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which is the counterbalance to the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. The functions the vagus nerve affects are involuntary so we don’t consciously think about controlling them. Measuring Heart Rate Variability (HRV) can indirectly measure vagal tone, with a high HRV indicating healthy vagal tone and a good ability to manage stress an resilience.

When our vagus nerve is healthy, what state are we in? ie, how would we know?

A healthy vagus nerve would leave us feeling more calm and relaxed after periods of stress as it plays a major role in the  parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which is the counterbalance to the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. We are better equipped to deal with stress, our heart rate is lower, we sleep better, our digestion is optimised – overall we feel happier and more calm even when times are tough. A healthy vagus tone also leads to better cognitive performance.

Likewise, when our vagus nerve isn't in a good way, how does this manifest? What symptoms might we get?
Signs of a poorly functioning vagus nerve include an elevated heart rate, sleep disturbances, digestive issues such as bloating and acid reflux and anxiety. We feel more stressed less equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us when there is poor vagal tone. People might also experience bacterial overgrowth in the GI tract as it’s normal functioning helps remove waste and bad microbes. You may even experience issues with swallowing and have a hoarseness in your voice.

What conditions (age, stress, anxiety, gender, poor diet etc) affect the vagus nerve?
There are some medical conditions that can impact vagal tone function such as autoimmune conditions (rheumatoid arthritis), diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s and multiples sclerosis), viral infections (Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) or herpes), Gastroparesis, tumours or trauma in the neck or chest area. Another massive disruptor of vagal tone function is chronic stress and anxiety.

A bad diet full of highly processed foods and sugar also impacts the vagus nerve, instead you want to eat an anti-inflammatory diet full of lots of omega 3 fats and look to boost a healthy microbiome with 30 different varieties of plant-based foods per week, bone broth and fermented foods daily.
Vagus nerve function does seem to decline as we age so it becomes even more important to live in a way that supports your vagus nerve. Vagus nerve function can alter as our hormones fluctuate so females may also experience changes at different points during their menstrual cycle, when they are pregnant or going through the menopause.

Is it possible to reset our vagus nerve? If so, can you give 4/5 tips on how to do this please?
The more we stimulate the vagus nerve the better it gets at keeping us calm, relaxed and able to deal with stressors.
Meditation and mindfulness 
Deep and slow belly breathing – any form of breathwork
Regular exercise and movement, at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity daily
High quality, positive social connections with people who leave you feeling energetically energised and happy. Make a ritual around spending time with those people who after seeing them leave you feeling there is a net gain in your energy and minimise time with those who leave you feeling your energy has been taxed
Optimise sleep and focus on quality as well as quantity. Practice good sleep hygiene by having a power down hour (no access to screens an hour before bed), keeping to consistent sleep and wake times, minimise caffeine (avoid after midday), keep electronics out of the room, get morning sunshine within 30 minutes after waking and make sure the room is completely dark and cool.
Exposure to cold such as cold shower or an ice baths can impact vagal tone, especially good to apply cold water or an ice pack to the neck area
Practicing compassion to self and others activates the vagus nerve
Laughing for at least 10 minutes daily!
Humming, singing or chanting

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