The vagus nerve is the most important nerve you probably didn’t know you had! It is extremely critical for general health, being closely connected to several organs and systems of the body. The vagus nerve has fibers that touch virtually all of our internal organs. The management and processing of emotions happens through the vagus nerve and the connection with the heart, brain and intestines, which is why we have a strong intestinal reaction to intense mental and emotional states.
Vagal nerve tone is essential for activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by following the heart rate along with the respiratory rate. Heart rate speeds up a little when we breathe and slows down a little when we exhale. The greater the difference between heart rate by inhalation and heart rate by exhalation, the higher the vagal tone. High vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
The vagus nerve can be affected by heavy metals such as mercury, multiple conditions such as diabetes, alcoholism, respiratory viral infections or by the nerve being accidentally cut during an operation. Stress can inflame the nerve, along with fatigue and anxiety, as well as poor posture and poor nutrition.
Organs and Systems Affected by Vagus Nerve Function.
Given the importance of the vagus nerve in the digestive system, when it does not work well it causes a variety of intestinal problems including: constipation, dyspepsia, gastroparesis, gastroesophageal reflux, colitis, anorexia, bulimia, food intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome. The vagus nerve regulates stomach acidity, gastric juices and transit. Through the secretion of intrinsic factor, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the absorption of vitamin B12. In the liver and pancreas, it helps control blood glucose. In the gallbladder it helps to eliminate bile, which also causes the elimination of toxins.
In the brain, the vagus nerve helps control anxiety and depression.
The cardiac system.
In the heart, the vagus nerve controls the variability of heart rate and blood pressure. Vagus nerve activation releases dopamine into the kidneys, which helps eliminate sodium, lowering blood pressure.
The vagus nerve supports the general function of the kidneys. Lower vagus nerve stimulation may cause frequent urination, in addition to low levels of vasopressin and aldosterone and high levels of cortisol.
The hormonal system.
Vagus nerve stimulation normalizes the high activity of the HPA axis – the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortex. Insulin activates the vagus nerve, which lowers glucose production in the liver. In addition to its role in the secretion of oxytocin, the vagus nerve also plays an important role in the secretion of testosterone, the production of growth hormone and the stimulation of parathyroid hormone, important for the conversion of vitamin D3 into active vitamin D, calcitriol.
Other actions of the vagus nerve in the body:
- activation of the vagus nerve will reduce inflammation in all organs by secreting acetylcholine.
- helps control female fertility and orgasm by connecting to the cervix, uterus and vagina.
- helps control taste and saliva, and the secretion of tears.
- stimulation of the vagus nerve helps people suffering from tinnitus due to its connection with the ear.
- it is largely responsible for the mind-body connection and the way we interact with each other.
- higher vagal tone is associated with a greater ability to approach others and more altruistic behavior.
- vagus nerve activity in the child may be influenced by his mother. It was found that babies with mothers who had been depressed / angry / anxious during pregnancy had lower vagus nerve activity.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques.
Positive social relationships.
A 2013 study found that there is a link between physical health, emotional health and social pleasure. Positive social interactions influence positive emotions, which improve vagal tone. The study concluded that “positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence each other in a self-sustaining, spiraling, upward dynamic.” The study also found that regular meditation and positive affirmation could bring people inside this upward spiral.
Exposure to cold.
Cold showers or immersion of the face in cold water stimulates vagus nerve function. Cold therapy has many benefits, from faster recovery from exercise to improved immune function. Exposure to cold can also increase parasympathetic activity (rest and digestion) through the vagus nerve, decreasing the sympathetic response (alert, fight-or-run).
Gargle, chanting or chanting mantras.
Singing or humming can be relaxing, but there is a physiological reason for it. The vagus nerve is attached to the vocal cords. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that intonation, singing and even gargling cause nerve activation.
Research suggests that foot massage and reflexology are beneficial for stimulating the vagus nerve. In a 2012 study, premature babies who were massaged had higher weight gain due to vagal activity. According to a study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, foot reflexology increased vagal modulation, decreased sympathetic modulation and decreased blood pressure.
Yoga and Tai Chi.
Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in the brain. The researchers believe it does so by “stimulating vagal fibers, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.” This is especially useful for those struggling with anxiety or depression. Studies show that tai chi can also “improve vagal modulation.”
It is well known that deep and slow breathing, diaphragmatic breathing and yogic breathing called ujjayi help induce relaxation. Vagal stimulation can cause relaxation, but the reciprocal is also true. Relaxation can stimulate the vagus nerve.
These are like “sprints” for the vagus nerve. The extension of the intestines which happens with enemas will increase vagus nerve activation. This increases the liver’s ability to detoxify toxins in the blood and bind them to the bile. The whole blood supply circulates through the liver every three minutes. By keeping the coffee in the intestines for 12-15 minutes, the blood will circulate four to five times for cleansing, just like a dialysis treatment. The water content of coffee stimulates intestinal peristalsis and helps empty the large intestine with accumulated bile.
Balancing the intestinal microbiome.
The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a loop of positive feedback through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. Supplementation with quality pro- and prebiotics contributes to adequate diversity and health of the microbiome and thus better vagus nerve function.
The vagus nerve has been getting a lot of attention lately for all the amazing things it can do for health. It is simple and easy to stimulate the vagus nerve and get these benefits, making it an affordable (and low-cost) way to improve physical and emotional health. I frequently work with several of these techniques presented above in my daily routine and recommend them to my clients.
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Kok, B. E. et al. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123–1132. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797612470827
Pavlov, V. A., Wang, H., Czura, C. J., Friedman, S. G., & Tracey, K. J. (2003). The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway: a missing link in neuroimmunomodulation. Molecular medicine (Cambridge, Mass.), 9(5-8), 125–134. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1430829
Frieda A. Koopman et al. Vagus nerve stimulation inhibits cytokine production and attenuates disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis. PNAS July 19, 2016 113 (29) 8284-8289. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1605635113
Yuan PQ, Taché Y, Miampamba M, Yang H. Acute cold exposure induces vagally mediated Fos expression in gastric myenteric neurons in conscious rats. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2001;281(2):G560-8. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpgi.2001.281.2.G560
Mäkinen TM et al., Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2008 Sep;79(9):875-82. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18785356
Vickhoff, B. et al. (2013). Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 334. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334