Why do you breathe a sigh of relief when a stressful situation is resolved? Why is deep breathing or stretching your neck so relaxing?
Be thankful to your vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body. It contains ‘vagabond’ nerve fibers driving the ‘rest and digest’ response to key organs and body systems. This is the key pathway for our brain to connect with the entire organism and deactivate the ‘fight and flight’ response leading to anxiety and stress.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve wanders throughout your body and in so doing connects your brain to a number of vital organs in your body, including your gut, lungs and heart.
It is the key component of the parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest,’ part of your autonomic nervous system. The other component of the system is the sympathetic, ‘fight or flight,’ response. An imbalance or lack of control of your autonomic response leads to anxiety and chronic stress. The sympathetic nerves are the gas pedal, revving you up, while the parasympathetic or vagus nerve puts the breaks in motion and slows you down.
The vagus nerve is key to feeling a sense of calm. When you stimulate the vagus nerve, feel-good hormones like prolactin and oxytocin are released. As a result, you feel less anxious and depressed, experience less tension headaches and form stronger social bonds.
It also controls many functions in your body that happen unconsciously. So, a well-functioning autonomic nervous system means better blood glucose and blood pressure control, better digestion and immunity, and less inflammation. You will also experience better heart health and less allergies.
On the other hand, if your vagus nerve is not functioning well, you may experience weight gain, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and chronic inflammation. Even, the so-called invisible disease or dysautonomia, affecting millions of people globally.
What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
The vagus nerve extends into the digestive system. In fact, close to 20% of the vagus nerve cells form connections with the digestive system and send messages from the brain in order to control movement of food along the gut. In addition, the bacteria in the gut communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, which not only affects how much food is eaten, but inflammation and mood as well.
As a result, stimulating the vagus nerve can improve digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. On the other hand, damage to the vagus nerve can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea, bloating, nausea and slow down the emptying of the stomach.
Can the Vagus Nerve be Stimulated?
As a medical treatment, the vagus nerve can be stimulated to treat a number of diseases including medication-resistant epilepsy, treatment-resistant depression and anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
To stimulate the vagus nerve, an electrode is implanted along the right side of the vagus nerve, thus providing regular activation of the vagus nerve.
Unless you are a yoga master, you cannot directly stimulate the vagus nerve, but you can do so indirectly to relieve anxiety and depression. Do it yourself in 4 natural ways:
Breath Slowly and Deeply
Most of us don’t breathe well. We either breathe too fast; about 10 to 14 breaths per minute, or we breathe too superficially; from the chest instead of the diaphragm. Thus, we short-change ourselves from the life-giving force of the vagus nerve.
By breathing deeper and more slowly, we are able to stimulate the vagus nerve, and thus reduce anxiety. So, how exactly can you practice abdominal breathing? It’s actually quite simple: When you are breathing, think about slowly filling your abdomen up like a balloon. This will make you naturally inhale slowly. Then, slowly exhale.
How often you practice slow abdominal breathing depends on you. You can make a daily routine of it by fitting it into a daily meditation or yoga practice. On the other hand, you can also just practice it whenever you feel on edge. Just 3 cycles of slow abdominal breathing can work wonders for activating your vagus nerve!
Because your gut and your brain are intimately connected via the gut-brain axis, whatever affects your gut also affects your brain and its connections such as the vagus nerve.
So, by taking good care of your gut, you’re also taking care of your vagus nerve. One way you can take care of your gut is by practicing intermittent fasting. Much like you need to give your body a rest in order to recharge, intermittent fasting gives your gut a break from digestion, so it can recharge. In fact, research shows that intermittent fasting increases your heart rate variability, which is a measure of the activity of your vagus nerve.
An easy way to begin intermittent fasting is to stop eating, snacking or drinking alcohol after 7 p.m., and not resume eating or snacking until 7 a.m. the next day.
Stretch and Exercise daily
Participating in daily physical activity has tons of benefits, one of which is stimulating your vagus nerve. Activating your parasympathetic nervous system decreases your stress and anxiety levels, your anger, and even inflammation.
However, there is one caveat when it comes to physical activity; it should be done regularly and include moderate cardio and strength routines, which provide a sufficient increase of the vagal tone without overexerting yourself. This is because when you exercise too intensely, your vagus nerve activity actually diminishes.
Yoga is an ideal type of practice since stretching in certain yoga poses has a proven beneficial effect on heart rate and blood pressure, especially stretching the neck in the cobra pose.
Be Aware and Empathetic
In today’s technology driven world, we can feel isolated despite social media. Research has demonstrated that when you feel socially isolated, your vagus nerve function decreases.
But the good news is that there is a remedy for this; face-to-face interactions. The same study found that when those who felt socially isolated were engaged in fact-to-face interactions with others such as family and friends, the vagus tone increased.
Not able to have face-to-face interactions right now? Not to worry! By practicing mindful framing, a mindfulness practice that transforms your anxiety into vital energy through visualization, you will increase self-awareness and become more empathetic towards people in your family, at work and other acquaintances.
Or you can practice loving-kindness mindfulness, projecting warm feelings of love, empathy, and forgiveness toward others in four stages; first with friends and loved ones, then strangers who are suffering around the world, then your enemies and those you hold grudges against, and finally, yourself.
By naturally stimulating your vagus nerve, you will have at your disposal a powerful tool to relax and rebound from anxious thoughts and life’s stresses. Discover how your mind can control your body by sending the right signals to your heart, your lungs and your gut, while creating an aura of peace and relaxation around you.