Stress Reduction and the Vagus Nerve

The Vagus Nerve is arguably the most important weapon we have in our arsenal when it comes to fighting stress. The nerve originates up in the cerebellum of the brain and runs into the neck and branches into two parts then down and around most of our major organs like the heart, the lungs, the liver, the stomach, the pancreas, the intestines reaching out into virtually every major organ in the abdomen. It controls a vast range of bodily functions including digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, inflammation and immunity as well as sweating and even the gag reflex.

vagus-nerve-photoThe vast majority of the information flowing along the vagus nerve runs from south to north, like a huge nerve super highway…in other words, “4 of its 5” lanes bring information up from the body to the brain. 1 lane remains to send information from brain back down to the body. It is the way the body communicates with the brain.

Our body does not speak in words, our body responds to feelings both physical and emotional…so when our body is tense, our heart rate increases, our breathing quickens, our stomach is in knots– the vagus nerve is sending information up to the brain that our body is in distress…when our body is relaxed, our heart rate slows, our breathing deepens, our stomach is soft—all this information signals to the brain that all is well.

The vagus nerve is the prime signaler to our nervous system that either all is well—or something is wrong. When something is wrong our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and we start to stress. When all is well the vagus nerve kicks the parasympathetic nervous system into gear—our rest and relax response.

When we start to stress, our digestion is hampered, our immune system doesn’t function, our ability to think clearly dwindles, our heart rate picks up and our blood pressure goes up….all of this is fine, if we are being chased down a dark alley by the proverbial saber toothed tiger….but when it continues over an extended time it starts to have some seriously negative effects on our bodies ability to stay healthy and heal, let alone function at optimum performance levels.

We eventually actually get used to this cascade of harmful hormones and even get “addicted” to the chemicals of stress. Making it impossible for us to truly relax…our systems are kicked into survival mode and we stay there. For example the person who takes a yoga class but cannot simply close their eyes and settle into shavasana…or the person who goes on a 10 day vacation and takes 6 days to actually relax…then gets amped up after 2 days to prepare for the trek back.

Science is now looking into ways of stimulating the vagus nerve to help people who are coping with anxiety, depression, epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart disease, and auto immune inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. But…I contend that Eastern Philosophy has beaten Western Science to the punch….

We all have the ability to influence our vagus nerve function….yes, we can stimulate our own vagus nerve using the one lane that flows south. We can choose to send positive signals of rest and relaxation…allowing the vagus nerve to kick our rest and relax system into gear.

How you ask?

  1. Breathing—we can control the depth and rate of our breath. Stomach breathing—the deep rhythmic breath of the very young and the very relaxed….when we allow our breathing to deepen and slow we are signally to our vagus nerve that all is well…in turn the vagus nerve will do its thing releasing all kinds of happy chemicals into our system
    2. Gratitude—when we experience gratitude we impress our vagus nerve into releasing happy chemicals….when we think about the things we are grateful for…like our children our spouse, our health, our home, anything that we feel grateful for, we release happy chemicals in the brain…which in turn effects our vagus nerve and the vagus nerve starts to release happy chemicals throughout our system….allowing the stress reponse to ease and our rest and relax response to fire over.
    3. Positive thoughts—similar to gratitude…when we purposefully think about things positively. We have no control over that which life throws our way—but we do have control how we choose to respond to such things. We can choose to be a victim or we can choose to see that everything happens for a reason and it is an opportunity to grow. When we choose to see the world positively we release positive chemicals in the brain, which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve to release its acetylcholine (feel good chemical) throughout our systems.
    4. Exercise—yep—good ole exercise…..stimulates the vagus nerve…so get out there and do your 15 min a day of cardio and maybe throw in a biweekly yoga class or a quick run/bike ride, even a walk helps…get that vagus nerve firing on all cylinders and keep your body happy, healthy and whole.
    5. Spending time with loved ones. The ability to feel love and compassion is a vagus nerve response… allow yourself to enjoy the company of your loved ones and release your stress.

So…since we know that stimulating the vagus nerve will make us feel better—reducing inflammation, improving immunity, improving digestion, reducing blood pressure, reducing anxiety, depression and a whole host of other nasty stress induced responses from hives to sweating to impatience, irritability, poor decision making, loss of memory etc….. long term we will actually break our chemical addiction to stress! Imagine your life without the negative impacts of stress….how would you feel? How would your relationships improve? How much money would you save on medications? What would you be able to accomplish if you were running on all 6 cylinders, every moment or every day?

What are we waiting for?

Get out there and start to breath, exercise, think positively, practice some gratitude and spend time with loved ones to get yourself in a healthier space.

What is your favorite vagus nerve stimulation activity?
What prevents you from actively stimulating your vagus nerve daily?
What vagus nerve stimulation activity are you willing to commit to trying for a week? A month? A year?