The vagus nerve is your longest cranial nerve – technically, twin nerves that emerge from either side of your brainstem and wander through your body like, well, vagabonds (hence the name). It forms a network of some 100000 fibres running to nearly every internal organ and carrying information back to your brain for analysis. The brain then sends commands down to the organs, with effects only recently becoming better understood in terms of stress, epilepsy and, increasingly, inflammation.
The vagus nerve is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, a counterpoint to the sympathetic nervous system – the one responsible for the fightorflight survival response. In the past, this response would have been triggered by the occasional encounter with a woolly mammoth, but today your sympathetic nervous system can be on almost constant alert due to the stresses of modern life, such as work deadlines, traffic jams, and the relentless pressure of being plugged in electronically, always on call.
While your sympathetic nervous system galvanises you to escape danger, making your muscles tense up and your heartbeat and breathing accelerate by releasing a flood of stress hormones, your parasympathetic system, through the vagus nerve, works to relax and slow your body’s response. It puts on the brakes to spare you the long term effects of prolonged exposure to stress hormones, which are now linked to everything from high blood pressure to changes in your brain that may contribute to anxiety, depression, addiction and obesity.
Help steady your nerve!
Evidence is mounting that there are ways you can help activate your para sympathetic nervous system and produce feelings of calm and relaxation when you’re feeling stressed and anxious – helping to lower your blood pressure, lift your mood and strengthen your immune system. One is good old deep breathing from your diaphragm. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that using your diaphragm activates your vagus nerve, triggering your body’s relaxation response, and ‘can help in managing symptoms of chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders’.
A 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests progressive relaxation, meditation or repetitive prayer, yoga or t’ai chi work through this too: ‘Vagus nerve functions overlap with the functional effect associated with contemplative activities. Therefore, the breathing exercise component of contemplative activities is a prime candidate mechanism behind the beneficial effects found on mental and physical health.’
Singing, humming, chanting and even gargling may also help you relieve stress – researchers at the University of Ottawa report that the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and these activities stimulate it. So may exposure to cold, with growing evidence that wild swimming, a cold shower or simply splashing your face with cold water stimulates the vagus nerve too, possibly by activating the cholinergic neurons that form part of the nerve’s pathways.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research concludes that ‘cold stimulation in the lateral neck region activates the parasympathetic nervous system in ways that resemble significant research findings in vagus nerve stimulation.
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