vagus nerve

The Tibetan monks, Yoga gurus, and Tai Chi masters of the East understood that their techniques of deep breathing, chanting, and meditation had powerful effects on the brain – but it wasn’t until modern neuroscientists set out to better elucidate the workings of the autonomic nervous system that the story of one of the most impactful structures in the body – the vagus nerve – was revealed.

Unbeknownst to most of us, the autonomic nervous system controls many aspects of our lives while we rush from morning meetings to family dinners to overdue bedtimes.

Autonomic nervous system impacts:

· Sleep quality

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· Digestive system function

· Mood

· Level of concentration

The autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions (not consciously directed) is composed of two parts:

· Sympathetic nerve: Fight or flight, a.k.a. the stress response

· Parasympathetic nerve: Rest and digest, a.k.a. relaxation mode

The vagus nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system. The very name, vagus, comes from the Latin word for wanderer because this nerve seems to roam throughout the body, its fibers touching nearly every organ and system that matters, including the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. 

What few understood initially was that the vagus nerve isn’t just a bundle of the same type of nerve fibers that carry signals to the organs. In reality, more than 75 percent of the fibers transmit information up to the brain.

What Is Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves. This nerve is a bundle of motor and sensory fibers that starts in the brainstem and extends all the way down to the abdomen.

The vagus nerve has a number of important functions for your body including regulating inflammation, digestion, and metabolism. The vagus nerve also plays a major role in regulating your heart rate, respiratory rate, bronchial contractions, and digestive activities. It helps the body control the brain by releasing neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA, and acetylcholine to change how the brain functions.

Through the vagus nerve, the body tells the brain to change itself to meet the demands of the world. Perception of pain can be heightened or reduced, alertness can be enhanced or sleep can be promoted, mood can be elevated or depressed, hunger can be ignored or enhanced, and even stress can be managed easily or exacerbated.

How To Stimulate Vagus Nerve For Better Health

Stimulating this nerve can have a big impact on your health and wellbeing. In the modern world, where we’re constantly being bombarded by stimuli from work, technology, social media and other sources, the vagus nerve is becoming overstimulated and when this happens you can experience health issues such as anxiety, insomnia and fatigue.

Managing stress, in particular, is key. While activating the stress response system for short periods of time is good and healthy, prolonged periods of stress can be damaging. Much of what we experience in Western Society – fast foods, processed sugars, 24-7 connectivity, constant screen time, chronic lack of sleep and sedentary lifestyle – push our autonomic nervous system into an imbalanced state dominated by the stress response side of the system.

To bring your brain and body into balance, which will enhance your ability to think, feel healthy, be in a positive and productive mood, and digest your food well:

· Get on a regular sleep cycle of 7.5 hours of sleep per night or more

· Restore the proper microbiome in your stomach and intestines by predominantly eating healthy foods

· Exercise regularly, at least six days per week

· Meditate, do yoga or spend a few minutes every day doing deep nasal breathing (research shows that breathwork can significantly lower cortisol levels)

While adhering to these guidelines should be the goal, sometimes it’s not enough, and activation of the vagus nerve can pick up the slack. Because the vagus nerve runs from your brain stem down through your neck into your chest and abdomen, and it controls your body’s rest-and-digest program, stimulating it can invigorate your metabolism, your immune system, your digestive system, your pain response, and even how well you heal.

Research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve has positive benefits related to stress, inflammation, poor diet, and even some symptoms of genetic disorders. How can you trigger it?

· Vocal cord vibration, so sing, hum, chant and gargle away

· Cold exposure, from showers to plunge pools

· Meditation that increases positive thoughts and feelings of social connection

· Deep, slow, rhythmic breathing…in and out, in and out

· Laughter for 10 minutes or more, so turn on a funny movie, head to a comedy show or get together with a friend who knows how to make you cackle and howl

· Massage, including neck, foot, and pressure rubdowns

· Electrical stimulation device, no surgery needed

Many of the tools, hacks and habits touted by successful leaders and athletes are tied to balancing the autonomic nervous system and improving vagal tone, or activity of the vagus nerve. But now you’re in on the secret…now you hold the power to ensure that the best you are showing up, in your career and in your life.

Leigh Ann Errico is a Georgetown University-certified health & wellness coach, a Georgetown University-certified leadership coach, a Corentus-certified team coach and the founder of LAErrico & Partners

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