Is the Vagus Nerve the key to unlocking wellbeing?
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
The Vagus Nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and comprises a significant part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Often called the "wandering nerve", it arises from the medulla in the brainstem, exits through the jugular foramen in our skull, and goes on to supply the muscles of speech and swallowing, the heart, intestines, liver and all other major organs of the body. The vagus nerve plays a critical role in the gut -brain axis. Over 80% of it's nerve fibers of the are afferent, meaning that their primary function is to relay information from the organs to the brain. In other words, the Vagus Nerve is constantly receiving information from our environment and relaying that information to the brain. Furthermore, the Vagus Nerve overseas a vast array of bodily functions including control of mood, immune and endocrine response, digestion, and heart rate.
Through the work of Stanley Rosenberg and Stephen Porges (Polyvagal Theory), we are beginning to understand the capacity of the Vagus Nerve, particularly the ventral branch, to aid in our sense of safety, enable positive social interactions, and improve communication with others. The research also points to the importance of the Vagal system as a pathway to develop bonding and ultimately experience love and friendship on a deeper level.
Dysfunction of the Vagus Nerve, autonomic nervous system and/or cranial nerves is quite common. Past and current experiences of stress, physical and/or emotional trauma and even infection/illness shape the present state of the autonomic nervous system. According to the Polyvagal theory, we have 3 main circuits of the autonomic nervous system. The first is a fight or flight response (spinal sympathetic chain), the second is a freeze response (dorsal branch of the Vagus Nerve) and third is the pathway to social engagement (ventral Vagus nerve). Autonomic/Vagal dysfunction may be associated with the following conditions.
Chronic physical tension: migraines, sore neck/shoulder muscles, clenched teeth/grinding, facial tensions
Emotional issues: anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia,
Heart and lung problems: asthma, high blood pressure
Digestive issues: poor digestion, constipation, loose stool, stomach problems
Immune system impairments: frequent illness, autoimmune conditions, allergies
If you are wondering, "Wow, that seems like a whole lot of issues," you are right! Thankfully, there is quite a bit we can do to help improve our Vagal tone and get out of autonomic dysregulation. Listed below are 10 ways to take back control.
1. Deep breathing: breathing is one way we can consciously alter our autonomic state. Focus on slow, deep breaths and maximize your exhalation.
2. Humming, singing and chanting: The vocal cords are supplied by the Vagus Nerve, so go ahead and keep singing in the shower!
3. Cold water exposure has been shown to improve the adaptability of the autonomic nervous system. Taking icy showers may heighten your immune system and make you more resistant to illness. A clinical trial in the Netherlands found that cold showers led to a 29% reduction in people calling off sick from work. Another study even connected cold showers to improved cancer survival. Start with 30 seconds of cold water exposure in the shower each day and build up to 5 min.
4. Meditation can aid in activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and downregulation of the sympathetic nervous system
5. Laughter has been shown help improve vagal tone and heart rate variability, which is a reliable method to determine the resting state of the autonomic nervous system.
6. Positive social connections
7. Hugging! It releases oxytocin which helps us feel safe and connected to others
8. Bodywork, craniosacral therapy and massage can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system
9. Exercise, specifically HIIT/interval training, has been linked to improvements in heart rate variability and vagal tone.
10. Probiotics can improve the microbiome and Omega 3 supplements may reduce systemic inflammation, both directly impacting Vagus Nerve positively
At Resonance Physical Therapy, we specialize in assessment and treatment of the Vagus Nerve, craniosacral system and visceral organs. Reach out to find out more or to book a session. Have your autonomic nervous system evaluated and treated by a Certified Functional Manual Therapist.
Roderik J. S. Gerritsen, Guido P. H. Band., Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci, 2018; 12: 397
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G and Hasler, G., Vagus Nerve as a Modulator or the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018; 9:44
Rosenberg, S., Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. 2017