It’s a fascinating story about a nerve that wanders on. First, look at that picture above; it’s of the 2016 Supermoon. If you spend a few uninterrupted seconds gazing at it, you’ll most likely feel more relaxed.
While looking at the soft, red moon, the tree, and the flying birds against a blue grey sky, you might have unconsciously taken a slow, deep breath. If you’ve not, and if you’re not feeling too self-conscious, do take a slow, deep breath. Try now, just one deep breath.
And once you do, you”ll notice it relaxes you almost on cue. Because slow, deep breathing has always done so. We are born with this ability, and the credit goes to our body’s “wandering nerve.”
The Wandering Nerve
The “wandering nerve” helps us go into relaxation as it gets stimulated by our deep breathing.
Scientists call it the vagus nerve — the longest autonomic nerve in the human body. Actually, there is one vagus nerve on each side of our body. It starts out at the base of our brain, travels into the neck, then further through the chest and down to large gut in the abdomen. In women, it reaches as low in the abdomen as the cervix of the uterus.
The vagus is a part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls those functions of the body that are not under your voluntary control, such as the heart rate. Other than heart beat, the vagus also controls our gut movements and sweating. It also controls release of tears, saliva and stomach acid. It causes us to gag when something touches the back of our throat, and to cough when a cotton bud tries to clear out a plug of ear wax. Women who have had complete spinal cord injury are known to experience orgasms via the vagus nerve.
A recent research hints that vagus stimulation could help in strengthening of our memories. This could open up a world of possibility in Alzheimer’s patients. The role of vagus in keeping down the inflammation in our body is also a promising direction of research. Furthermore, those with stronger vagal response might recover better after a stressful event.
Our hearts have a built-in natural pacemaker, called the sinoatrial node, that regulates our heart beats. In turn, the vagus controls this pacemaker of our heart, and tells it to instruct the heart to beat at a certain rate. How important is the vagus nerve? Suppose the vagus were cut, then our hearts would start racing at around 100 beats every minute, even if we were just catching a breeze on a hammock. An intact vagus is always active to keep up our resting heart rate between 60 to 80 per minute.
Be Still My Beating Heart
Christopher Bergland, a world-class endurance athlete and author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, once wrote, “The vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure.” The stimulated vagus releases an array of anti-stress chemicals in our body — acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin.
Once stimulated, the “wandering nerve” brings down our heart rate. It was back in 1921 when Otto Loewi showed that stimulating the vagus nerve can make frog hearts beat slower. For this, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, albeit a little late, in 1934.
Certain drugs can stimulate the vagus. Often, surgeons implant a device called vagus nerve stimulator under the chest skin to bring about vagus nerve stimulation (in short, VNS). This device is especially useful in those who have medically uncontrollable seizures and hard-to-treat depression.
However, there are a few indirect maneuvers that also stimulate the vagus, but are not a drastic as implantation surgery, or what Loewi did in his original experiment — cutting the hearts out of the frogs’ body and placing them in a chemical solution.
When you’re stressed and anxious, you could stimulate your vagus nerve without drugs or device to relax yourself.
Finally, here are 10 simple ways we can stimulate our “wandering nerve” to bring down our heart rates and initiate our body’s relaxation response:
Try any of these the next time you’re feel like relaxing on a short notice. Watch the video to better understand the carotid sinus massage.
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