Ever been to a yoga class and wonder why all the crazy hippies around you moan and groan at exhale? It is for good reason, when you sigh it out and sound, the vibration stimulates one of the most important nerves in the body that intersects “virtually all of our internal organs” (UpLift and YouTube).
Meet the vagus nerve.
There are basically two states within which we live: one of calm, a state mitigated by the parasympathetic nervous system and the other a state of anxiety or fight or flight, managed by the sympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is an essential part of the parasympathetic response that allows for peace of mind.
Unfortunately, via looming work deadlines, worry to make ends meet, dating, cars honking, back to back schedules, getting likes on Instagram, or simply walking down a New York street, most of us are living in a state of high stress and high anxiety all day long. This vital nerve, intrinsically tied to bringing us back to calm, is essentially being under used as a result and it is beginning to lay dormant.
What is The Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve, one of 12 nerves that originate in the brain, relays messages to vital organs, traveling "down the sides of your neck, across the chest, and down through the abdomen" (Melt Method). It's function plays a powerful part in bringing our minds and bodies back to calm after encountering a perceived threat - it helps the brain communicate with, "our organs, most specially the digestive tract, lungs and heart, spleen, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in everything from talking to eye contact to facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices" (Melt Method).
A Strong Vagus Nerve Helps Fight Disease
"Some of us have stronger vagus activity, which means our bodies can relax faster after a stress. The stronger your vagus response or vagal tone is the stronger your body is at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease", and you have better chance of managing chronic inflammation which is at the root of most every disease (Melt Method).
Tests have further revealed that, "people with impaired vagal activity have also been diagnosed with depression, panic disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, panic disorders, violent mood swings, fibromyalgia, early Alzheimer’s and obesity" (Tantra Psychology).
In 2013, an NIH study revealed, that an active vagus nerve, “may slow down tumor growth because it inhibits mechanisms responsible for tumor progression including oxidative stress, inflammation and excessive sympathetic nervous system activation. In addition the vagus nerve also [intercepts] major visceral organs where many cancers develop including the lungs, gut, pancreas and colon” (LinkedIn and NIH).
Feeling down? The vagus nerve is also linked to feelings of pleasure and happiness. "Research indicates that a healthy vagus nerve is vital in experiencing empathy and fostering social bonding, and it is crucial to our ability to observe, perceive, and make complex decisions" (Tantra Psychology).
You Need to Calm Down: How to Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve
You want your vagus nerve robust, however, because most of us live in constant states of stress and anxiety, the vagus nerve, “may be underactive, almost having forgotten how to function” (Mind Body Green).
In a nutshell, you want an active vagus nerve - it helps bring you back to calm and healthful status. Here’s how to promote for one (UpLift and Melt Method):
1. Embrace the Cold
“Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight sympathetic system declines and your rest and digest parasympathetic system increases–and this is mediated by the vagus nerve. Any kind of acute cold exposure including drinking ice cold water will increase vagus nerve activation".
2. Sing a Song
“Essentially, singing is like initiating a vagal pump sending out relaxing waves. Singing at the top of your lungs works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus. Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increases vagus function".
3. Get a Massage
“You can stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging your feet and your neck. A foot massage can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. A pressure massage can also activate the vagus nerve. These massages are used to help infants gain weight by stimulating gut function, largely mediated by activating the vagus nerve.”
4. Have a Laugh
“Happiness and laughter are natural immune boosters. Laughter also stimulates the vagus nerve. There are various case reports of people fainting from laughter and this may be from the vagus nerve/parasympathetic system being stimulated too much. Fainting can come after laughter as well as urination, coughing, swallowing or bowel movement—all of which are helped along by vagus activation”
5. Yoga and Tai Chi
"Both increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic system in general. Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by 'stimulating vagal afferents (fibers)', which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression. Studies show that tai chi also can ‘enhance vagal modulation.”
6. Take a Breath
“Our heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called baroreceptors, which detect blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain. This activates your vagus nerve that connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out, increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation. Breathing around 5-6 breaths per minute in the average adult can be very helpful.”
7. Go Workout
“Exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline. But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which leads to beneficial brain and mental health effects. Mild exercise also stimulates gut flow, which is mediated by the vagus nerve.”
8. Chill Out
“Learning how to chill may be the No. 1 thing to help keep your vagus nerve toned. Most relaxing activities will stimulate the vagus nerve.”
9. Loosen Your Tight Jaw
Magnesium helps! "The jaw [and jaw tension are] related to the vagus nerve, and misalignment of the jaw can cause low vagal tone. If you have had braces, lots of mouth work, or have unstable hips and poor foot strength and integrity you are at risk for low vagal tone".