What Is The Vagus Nerve & Why Does It Matter?
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is one of your primary cranial nerves – it sprawls out from the brain and into the body like an intricate network of roots. These nerve networks stretch all the way down to your stomach and act as lines of communication between your brain and the body’s many systems and organs. “In Greek, ‘vagus’ means traveller, and that’s precisely what it does in the body,” explains Liberty Mills, nutritional proof expert. “The vagus nerve travels around the body, where it influences various aspects of your health.” Liberty also explains that the vagus nerve plays a key role when it comes to stress and mood. In 1921, a German scientist discovered that electronically stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate. Since then, researchers have confirmed the vagus nerve doesn’t respond well to emotional stress. And the more stressed and anxious we are, the higher the likelihood of inflammation and low mood.
Why haven’t I heard of it until now?
If you’ve never heard of the vagus nerve, you’re not alone. Although scientists know it plays countless roles in the body, they aren’t sure exactly how it works. What we do know, however, is that the vagus nerve plays a significant part in regulating the peripheral nervous system, which is also known as your ‘rest and digest’ response due to its ability to slow your pulse and lower blood pressure. Your gut and brain are also connected by the vagus nerve, and it’s this two-way line of communication that scientists believe can trigger your gut to mirror your current state of mind – or vice versa – explaining why you may feel nauseous before a big presentation or why stressful situations wreak havoc with your stomach. “The vagus nerve is a real buzzword at the moment,” adds Hannah Braye, nutritional therapist at Bio-Kult. “Studies suggest vagal therapy could help with a number of health issues, such as mood, anxiety and digestive conditions.”
What are the signs your vagus nerve is out of balance?
“As the nerve is so long and influences so many different organs, signs that it’s not working quite as well as it should be can be wide-ranging and may depend which area is damaged,” says Hannah. “Potential symptoms may include difficulty speaking or loss of voice; trouble swallowing; pain in the ear; an unusual heart rate; abnormal blood pressure; decreased production of stomach acid; and abdominal bloating, pain or other digestive issues.” Liberty adds that brain fog is also a key sign your vagus nerve could do with some TLC. “If we take the gut-brain axis into consideration, chances are that if you are suffering with a leaky gut – i.e., when tiny holes form in the gut lining, leaking toxins into the body and causing IBS, constipation, diarrhoea and gas – then you’ll also suffer from a leaky brain. Brain fog is a clear indicator your vagus nerve is out of balance, and that includes forgetting things, struggling with concentration or depending on stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol.”
What can you do to look after your vagus nerve?
In recent years, researchers have discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions and good physical health, explains Hannah. “Essentially, the more you increase your vagal tone – i.e., the more you look after it – the more your physical and mental health may improve. The vagal response appears to reduce stress and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain and stimulates digestion, all of which happen when you are relaxed.” Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to optimise the function of your vagus nerve. If you nourish your vagus nerve, this will reduce inflammation, which will in turn ensure a healthier and more balanced body.
Here, the experts share their tips…
Stress Less: “The more you can actively put the body into relaxation mode, the better for your vagal tone,” says Hannah. “The likes of meditation and yoga have one major factor in common – they both require you to slow your breathing, which stimulates the vagal nerve.” If yoga and meditation don’t appeal, slowing your breath to around six breaths per minute, breathing in deeply from your diaphragm, can still make a big difference. Multiple studies also support the power of meditation to improve pain, sleep, appetite, anxiety and gut health via a direct effect on vagal tone.
Pop A Probiotic: “Looking after your microbiome by taking a probiotic is a key strategy for influencing the messages relayed along the vagus nerve, and the effect they have on your mental and cognitive health,” says Hannah. “In a recent study, 70 people who were experiencing low mood were given either a placebo or Bio-Kult’s probiotics. The participants reported their mood throughout the trial and cortisol levels were also tested through saliva. The result showed a 50% improvement in mood in those taking Bio-Kult; a 50% improvement in concentration and decreased cortisol in their saliva, which suggests lower stress levels.”
Take A Cold Shower: Cold stimulates the vagus nerve, and studies suggest a cold shower – or alternating cold and hot water – can help. “If you want to give it a go, start by finishing your shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water. Then, work your way up to longer periods of time,” suggests Hannah. If you can’t handle the thought of an ice-cold shower, even lowering your face into iced water for five sets of 20 seconds will have an effect.
Sing A Song: The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles at the back of your throat. “Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can all activate these muscles and stimulate the vagus nerve,” says Hannah. Try gargling water for a few minutes when brushing your teeth, singing or humming in the shower, or doing yoga chants during your daily downward dog.
Book A Massage: Reflexology can also help, says Hannah. “Foot massages have been shown to boost vagal function and heart rate variability and decrease the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.”
Consider Intermittent Fasting: Some studies suggest fasting can activate the vagus nerve. Given fasting’s other reported benefits – from improved cognitive function to reduced inflammation – it could be worth a try. Experts suggest starting with a 16-hour fast overnight.
For more information visit Bio-Kult.com and IntegrativeLiberty.co.uk
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