What is the Vagus Nerve? And How to Hack it for Optimal Health
It’s not surprising that chronic stress is likely to have negative effects on our physical and mental health. Finding stress management techniques can be vital to our wellbeing, especially in this ever-changing, fast paced world. So what does our nervous system have to do with this?
Stressful situations often trigger a “fight or flight” response. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing an acute stress response, preparing the body to fight or flee. This part of our biology has evolved over time as a survival mechanism and in our modern world it can become overactive with stress hormones constantly pumping through the body. Over time this can take a toll on us, having a wide range of negative effects on our mental, cardiovascular, immune function and gastrointestinal health.
So how do we calm and regulate our nervous system? One way to help counteract the effects of chronic stress is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” response.
The Vagus Nerve
Enter the vagus nerve - the longest cranial nerve connecting the brain to the body. The vagus nerve makes up an estimated 75% of the overall parasympathetic nervous system, working to counterbalance the fight or flight response by triggering a relaxation response. The vagus nerve is responsible for many important bodily functions including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.
The vagus nerve is the bridge between the brain and many organ systems throughout the body. Research shows the vagus nerve is an essential modulator of the brain-gut axis, delivering a wide range of signals from the brain to the digestive system, interchangeably. Vagal tone is how well the vagus nerve is communicating with the rest of the body. A higher vagal tone enables the body to relax faster after experiencing stress.
The vagus nerve plays an important role in the body’s ability to modulate inflammation, regulate food intake, and maintain intestinal and energy homeostasis. Preliminary evidence suggests that vagus nerve stimulation, alongside medical treatment, can be helpful when treating Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
We know that adaptogens work to strike a balance within the glands involved in the body’s stress response, but what are some natural ways we can stimulate the vagus nerve for better mental and physical health?
The inner workings of the vagus nerve can be activated by slowing down and focusing our breath. Slow, deep, belly breathing in particular can stimulate the vagus nerve and get us flowing into a restful parasympathetic state. It’s been shown to slow heart rate, relax the body, and lower defenses.
Practice inhaling deeply, filling up your lungs and belly, and then exhale very slowly, so that your exhale lasts twice as long as your inhale. This technique can help people experiencing high anxiety because it brings your focus back to your body, helping you to feel grounded and centered. Practicing mindful breathing on the regular will support you better than only turning to it during high stress moments.
Meditation has been around forever for good reason. An integral part of ancient meditation traditions is slow, deep breathing that moves the diaphragm, which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve, producing a calming effect on the body.
The goal of meditation is to enhance awareness and raise consciousness - to remove the focus away from the endless mental chatter, without self-judgment. Meditation is highly associated with relaxation. Even just 10 minutes of meditation a day increases the brain’s alpha waves and can reduce the effects of anxiety and depression.
Yoga is considered a “moving meditation” because it connects breathing with movement of the body, ideally creating a meditative state. Practicing yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helps with digestion, and promotes healthy blood flow.
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress, aid in relaxation, and help relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Studies have found that people who practice yoga regularly have lower cortisol levels and reduced inflammation.
Cold exposure increases vagus nerve stimulation. Specifically immersing or dipping your face (forehead, eyes and cheeks) in cold water activates the vagus nerve, thereby decreasing heart rate, and activating the immune system. Even just splashing your face, inside of your wrist, or back of your neck with cold water can help. The body adjusts to the cold enabling a parasympathetic response.
Here at Clover, we’re big fans of anything that can help people reduce stress naturally. While we can’t control everything life throws at us, these natural techniques can empower us to better manage our stress response. Learning to balance our nervous system in this way not only leads to better physical and mental health, but also increases wellbeing and resilience.