How The Wandering Nerve Can Relax You

Your “wandering nerve” can help you relax via a method called VNS or vagus nerve stimulation. It’s a fascinating story about a nerve that wanders on, from the head down to the womb, while relaxing all the body organs it visits on its way.

But 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. It’s by a body process called vagus nerve stimulation.

What Is The Wandering Nerve

The vagus, or the “wandering nerve,” is the longest autonomic nerve in the human body. It travels a long way, as if wandering on through the 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 credit of that deep breathing induced relaxation goes to our body’s “wandering nerve.” Scientists call it the vagus nerve , and they call its activation vagus nerve stimulation. Actually, there is one vagus nerve on each side of our body.

The vagus, as a part of your autonomic nervous system, controls those functions of the body that are not under your voluntary control, such as the heart rate. Other than heart beat, it also controls our gut movements and sweating. It commands the release of tears, saliva, and stomach acid, too. 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.

Be Still My Beating Heart: Our hearts have a built-in pacemaker, the natural pacemaker of the heart, called the sinoatrial node (SAN). It regulates our heart beats. In turn, the vagus controls this pacemaker of our heart. The wandering nerve asks the SAN to instruct the heart to maintain its beat at a certain rate.

How important is the vagus nerve to our hearts? 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. And any heart that is always beating that fast can wear out our organs, and ourselves, rather too soon. So, having an intact vagus that is always alert keeps our resting heart rate controlled, between 60 to 80 per minute.

When we actively stimulate the vagus, as we did by letting in a deep breath watching that Supermoon above, our hearts go into relaxation.

What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a surgical therapy for uncontrolled seizures, given by transmitting mild electrical pulses to the brain via the vagus nerve.

In surgical VNS, surgeons implant a device called vagus nerve stimulator under the chest skin to bring about vagus nerve stimulation, which involves sending a mild electric pulse through the vagus nerve. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved this device as a treatment option for use in those who have:

  1. medically uncontrollable seizures, and
  2. hard-to-treat depression.

Certain drugs can also stimulate the vagus. This is chemical VNS.

How important is the vagus nerve?

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 bunch of anti-stress chemicals in our body — acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Of these, the neurochemical acetylcholine brings down our heart rate.

We learned this back in 1921, when the German-born psychobiologist 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.

In his interesting midnight experiment, of which he had a dream, Loewi removed two beating frog hearts and soaked them in separate saline solutions. He stimulated the vagus nerve in one of these hearts. It slowed that heart down.

He then took away the saline from that slow-beating heart and put it to the second heart. This caused the second heart to slow down too. This proved that a stimulated vagus releases a chemical was released that slowed heart rates.

A recent research hints that vagus nerve 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. Further, those with stronger vagal response, that is those who get more affected by vagus nerve stimulation, might recover better after a stressful event.

A January 2017 study shows that vagus nerve stimulation therapy can help people overcome drug addiction by helping them learn new behaviors to replace those associated with seeking drugs.

10 Ways The Wandering Nerve Can Relax You

When you’re stressed and anxious, you could stimulate your vagus nerve to relax yourself.

Without drugs or device.

Indeed, there are a few indirect maneuvers that can stimulate the vagus, but are not a drastic as implantation surgery, or what Loewi did in his original experiment  —  cutting out the beating hearts of the frogs.

Here are 10 simple ways you can stimulate your “wandering nerve” to bring down your heart rates and initiate your body’s relaxation response:

  1. Deep and slow breathing — the belly breathing
  2. Holding breath for a few seconds
  3. Splashing your face with chilled water
  4. Coughing and gargling
  5. Tensing the tummy muscles as if bearing down to evacuate the bowel
  6. Massaging the sides of your necks — the carotid sinus massage
  7. Pressing the eyeballs
  8. A hearty, ‘mirthful’ bout of laughter
  9. Meditation, especially the loving-kindness meditation
  10. Exercise and yoga

Watch the video to better understand the carotid sinus massage.

Final Words

Vagus nerve stimulation via belly breathing is a very practical method of relaxing yourself on short notice. To do this, try to get your breathing rate down to 5 to 7 per minute. Doing this deep, diaphragmatic breathing for at least 10 minutes a day on a regular basis can bring about a sea change in your anxiety levels.

Now that you know, why not start this good thing today?

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An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Medium, written by the same author Sandip Roy.

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