The vagus nerve is central to every aspect of our life. It is integrated into our entire physical and neurological matrix, and can provide us with deep relaxation, as well as offer immediate response to life and death situations.
This nerve helps regulate most of the bodily functions necessary for our health and emotional well being. Physical and emotional well being are intimately linked. If we have a headache, it can be difficult to be happy and be interested in connecting with other people. This nerve must function properly for us to be healthy, feel good emotionally, and interact positively with our friends and family.
The vagus nerve is an important part of our autonomic nervous system and is the tenth cranial nerve. Vagus means wanderer. The vagus nerve runs from our brain and innervates the heart, lungs, throat, facial muscles, stomach, intestines and most of our organs. It influences heart rate, lung and digestive function, and can have a huge impact on mental health. The vagus nerve provides the connection between our brain and our organs. Not only are messages running from our brain to our stomach and intestines, but 80 percent of these messages run from these organs back to the brain relaying important information. Hence the vagus nerve is a key player in the mind-body connection. Through this system, the vagus nerve not only regulates immune and inflammatory responses, it actually helps us create memories and relays information from bacteria in the gut to the brain. When our vagus nerve is not functioning well it can play a role in chronic diseases and chronic pain. It is like the conductor of the orchestra, controlling all the different players and creating harmony.
The autonomic nervous system has been shown more recently to have three circuits. The first is controlled by the ventral branch of the vagus nerve, and brings us into a more relaxed state and has a calming soothing effect allowing us to be socially engaged with others in a healthy way. The second circuit is the spinal sympathetic chain, which allows us to fight and respond to threat. It is active when we do not feel safe and relates to emotions such as anger or fear. The third circuit is controlled by the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve, as the body responds by slowing or shutting down, and brings us to a helpless and depressive state. All three circuits have their place in our survival, but the ventral branch allows us to be in a state that feeds into our physical and emotional well being.
The health of the autonomic nervous system is key to preventing chronic disease, chronic pain and inflammation, as well as promoting emotional well being. If our vagus nerve is not functioning optimally, this may have far reaching effects on our health.
What can we do to help activate and promote health and regulation in our vagus nerve? Learning to breathe using our diaphragm, periodic cold exposure such as turning on the cold tap in the shower, humming or chanting, stimulating your gag reflex (touch the top of your soft palate with your toothbrush), yoga and Pilates with a focus on the breath, acupuncture, and practicing mindfulness and meditation all promote healthy activation of the vagus nerve. Laughter and social connectedness, daily exercise, and making smart dietary choices also improve function in the vagus nerve.
Stanley Rosenburg came up with an exercise that I often give to my patients who have chronic pain. It is a very simple exercise that helps stimulate the ventral branch of the vagus nerve. To do this, you lie on your back and place interlocked fingers behind your head. Allow your elbows to relax outwards. Then, with your head facing forwards look to the right. While doing this, bring your attention to your breath and wait for a sigh, a yawn or a swallow. This will take up to a minute. Repeat this looking to the left. I have found this very helpful for a lot of my patients, and it is often how I begin my treatments. It is very useful for patients who have PTSD, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders or with children who have autism.
As a manual therapist, I also find that the mobility of the vagus nerve itself is also compromised. This can often be traced to restrictions as the nerve emerges from the cranium or as it enters the thorax and can be treated with manual therapy. I will often treat the mobility of the organs and also the mobility of the vagus nerve that supplies that organ.
Many of us suffer from chronic health problems that can be physical, emotional or behavioral, and we tend to treat them as very separate issues. Perhaps this topic might bring to light the interconnectedness of our systems and how we can help ourselves with quite simple tools and lifestyle changes that can often profoundly restore health in many aspects of our lives.
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