How can we calm our vagus nerve, which controls some of the most vital processes in our body, like heartbeat and respiration, to help us relax?
The vagus nerve is one of our body’s most useful nerves, helping to keep us in a stable state of equilibrium, neither too agitated nor too lax. Some of its diverse duties include signaling the gut to digest, the lungs to breathe, and the heart to beat – all without our conscious awareness.
There is one vagus nerve on each side of our body. Each works to relax all the organs it touches on its way down from the brain. So, if we find ways to stimulate our vagus, it can relax us consciously.
Let’s take a moment to ride along the vagus.
How To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve Naturally And Relax?
When stressed, we can also calm ourselves via our vagus nerves without drugs or devices. But what steps can we take to activate our vagus? Here are some:
• Diaphragmatic Breathing or Belly Breathing.
Vagus nerve stimulation via belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is an easy method of relaxing yourself on short notice.
Learn below how to do it:
- Lie down on the back on a flat surface with knees bent. If uncomfortable, use a pillow under your head and your knees for support.
- Place one hand on the upper chest and the other on the belly, just below the rib cage.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose, letting the air in deeply towards the lower belly. The hand on the chest should remain still, while the other hand on the belly should rise.
- Tighten the abdominal muscles and let them cave in as you breathe out through your pursed lips. With this, the hand on the belly should move down to its original position.
- Try to get your breathing rate down to 5 to 7 per minute. Normally, it is 18 to 20 per minute.
Regular diaphragmatic breathing for 10 minutes a day can help you become calmer, stay unruffled, and lower your anxiety levels.
• Looking At A Peaceful Scene (Like The Supermoon).
Now, look at this picture — Supermoon of November 13, 2016, shot by Linda Schafer from Ramona, California.
While looking at the soft, large moon rising from the horizon, the trees in silhouette, and the distant line of mountains against a scarlet sky, you might have unconsciously taken a slow, deep breath.
If you haven’t, and if you are not feeling too self-conscious, take a slow, deep breath. Try it now: one slow, deep breath while gazing at the picture for a few unbroken seconds.
Once you’ve done that, notice how it relaxes you almost instantly. Because inhaling deeply has always done so; we’re born with this ability. It is a body process that stimulates the vagus nerve via the partition between our chest and abdomen, called the diaphragm.
So, the credit for that deep-breathing-induced relaxation goes to our body’s “wandering nerve,” or the vagus nerve.
[FYI: A Supermoon occurs when the moon is nearest to Earth, and earth, moon, and sun all line up, with the earth in the middle. Astronomers call it the Perigee Moon. It can be around 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a full moon at its farthest from the earth.]
• Carotid Sinus (Vagus Nerve) Massage.
The carotid sinus or “carotid bulb” is a small bundle of nerve endings sitting next to the carotid arteries in our neck. There are two carotid arteries, one on each side of the neck, which supply blood to our brain and head. We have two carotid sinuses, one on each side, situated roughly below the angle of the jawbone, right where each carotid artery forks out into two branches.
The carotid sinus has chemical and pressure receptors that tell the brain to maintain a controlled supply of blood to its organs including the brain, the heart, and the muscles.
Carotid Sinus Massage (CSM), or Vagus Nerve Massage, is massaging the carotid sinus, that is, applying finger pressure in longitudinal strokes to the carotid sinus (usually the area of the greatest carotid artery pulsation). It is a simple maneuver that slows the heart rate and lowers our blood pressure.
- First, turn your head to one side while lying on your back. For a right-sided CSM, turn the head to the left, and vice versa.
- With two or three fingers, touch up the side of your neck until you feel the carotid pulse directly under your fingertips. Then move your hand a little to the side until you can feel some cord-like tissue. This is the carotid sinus.
- Work your fingers gently up and down the cord-like tissue to massage the carotid sinus and the vagus nerve (for 5 to 10 seconds).
CSM to the left and right carotid sinuses need a gap of at least 10 to 20 seconds in between.
Carotid Sinus Massage is safe when done carefully. Be careful not to press the carotid artery too hard or too long as it can turn off the blood supply to your brain. And if you do so to both sides at once, it can cause you to faint and lose consciousness (syncope).
✶ People with any cerebral vascular disease or carotid bruits should not massage their carotid sinuses.
• More Ways To Relax Via Vagus Nerve.
- Do some slow exercise like yoga.
- Have a hearty, mirthful bout of laughter.
- Coughing and gargling can stimulate the vagus.
- Hold your breath for a few seconds until almost breathless.
- Practice meditation, especially the type of loving-kindness meditation.
- Tighten up the tummy muscles, as if bearing down to evacuate the bowel.
- Splash your face with chilled water, as cold exposure stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Breathe out through your mouth while holding the nose tightly closed (Valsalva maneuver).
Facts About The Vagus Nerve
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the tenth and longest of the twelve cranial nerves that run from the brain into the body. It travels the length of the body, from the brainstem through the chest and belly, finally reaching the large gut (and the uterus in women).
The name “vagus” comes from Latin, meaning “wandering,” and so the nerve is also named the “wandering nerve.”
The wandering nerve carries messages from our vital organs, like the heart, the lungs, and the gut, to the brain. When stimulated, it lowers blood pressure, slows breathing, triggers the release of digestive juices, and calms the body as a whole.
Now, let’s dive into the functions of the vagus nerve.
What does the vagus nerve do?
The vagus nerve is the main provider of the parasympathetic nervous system. It regulates involuntary processes of the body, such as heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. It reduces our stress reaction and induces a state of “rest and digest” (homeostasis). Also, it controls the activation of the inflammatory reflex. When the vagus is overstimulated, it can cause fainting (syncope).
The vagus nerve or wandering nerve also regulates the release of tears, saliva, and stomach acid. It makes us cough when we try to clean out the earwax with a cotton bud, and gag when something touches the back of our throat.
When we pass urine, the vagus nerve controls the smooth muscle that contracts our bladder. Its excessive stimulation can make us vomit or faint.
Let’s get a view from above of our nervous system:
- Experts divide our nervous system into two parts: central and peripheral. The central part consists of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral is made up of nerves that branch off the brain and spinal cord.
- The peripheral system is further divided into the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.
- Finally, there are two parts of the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system controls our body’s functions when we are on high alert. It raises breathing rate and heart rate, pumps more blood into our arms and legs, and dilates our pupils. In short, it acts to put up a fight-or-flight or stress response.
Functions of the parasympathetic system include carnal arousal, producing saliva and tears, and regulating urination, digestion, and defecation.
The vagus nerve is a mainstay of the parasympathetic nervous system, but it also has sensory and motor duties. It brings sensory information from the inner organs—the heart, lungs, gut, and liver—to the brain. Its motor functions involve moving the muscles that help in speaking, swallowing, and moving the bowels for digesting food.The vagus nerve works to switch us over from the fight-or-flight state to the rest-and-digest mode. It connects the brain to the gut, reduces inflammation, and helps us remember things better. Click To Tweet
Vagus and The Big O in Women: The vagus nerve is apparently the key to the female climactic experience (The Big O). Studies show that women with even complete spinal cord injuries can have the climactic experience by cervical self-stimulation (CSS). This becomes possible because the vagus nerve bypasses the spinal cord, providing a direct sensory pathway from the female genital tract, cervix, and uterus to the brain.
How does the vagus nerve calm us?
When stimulated, the vagus nerve releases the antianxiety chemical Acetylcholine (ACh), a neurotransmitter that calms us down. The ACh relaxes the smooth muscles in our artery walls, dilates the arteries, and slows down our heartbeats. It also helps build our long-term and short-term memories.
We can indirectly stimulate the vagus to release acetylcholine into our bodies. We do not need to carry out a thing as drastic as surgery to do so. That was something the German-born psychobiologist Otto Loewi did in his original experiment (we talk about the fascinating story later in this article).
Christopher Bergland, an ultramarathoner and endurance athlete, writes in his book The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss:
The vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure.
What does vagal tone indicate?
Your vagal tone reflects your overall levels of vagal activity.
Vagal tone is clinically assessed by your heart rate variability (HRV), or the beat-to-beat variations between heartbeats. Studies point out that a low HRV is bad for us, as it is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and death from several causes.
When the vagus nerve is healthy, it has a good vagal tone, and it performs its functions well. People who go to the gym, jog, practice yoga, or play a sport on a regular basis have a strong vagal tone. They can cope better with stress.
Scientists have found that self-generated positive emotions via loving-kindness meditation boost positive feelings in comparison to the control group, an effect that is controlled by baseline vagal tone.
When the vagal tone is low, we experience symptoms like constant fatigue, allergic reactions, migraine, tinnitus, and mood disorders, among others.
Alcoholics and heavy drinkers, those who are bedridden or lead sedentary lives, chain smokers, and overweight people have low vagal tone. A low vagal tone is also seen in digestive disorders and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Excessive vagal tone may cause vasovagal fainting, in which HRV increases.
What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)?
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is a medical method to stimulate the vagus. Surgeons implant a tiny pulse generator beneath the chest skin, which intermittently sends mild electric impulses to the brain via the vagus.
It has been approved by the United States FDA for the treatment of two chronic conditions: epilepsy and autism. It has also been successfully used to treat depression unresponsive to usual therapies.
VNS also appears to be a promising option for treatment-resistant anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
VNS has also benefitted people who suffer from chronic pain and stiffness. Neurosurgeon Kevin J. Tracey discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve with electricity can reduce inflammation of rheumatic arthritis.
However, what if we could stimulate the vagus nerve ourselves, naturally? Read on.
Loewi’s Dream of Frogs – And Vagus
This is the true story of how a scientist dreamed of frogs, conducted an experiment, and won the Nobel Prize — all thanks to the vagus nerve.
In the early 20th century, scientists were trying to figure out how information traveled between two nerve cells across microscopic gaps, called synapses. Many researchers were collaborating to find the answer.
Otto Loewi, a German scientist, visited London in 1902 as a guest researcher at Ernest Starling’s laboratory at University College. There he met Henry Dale, a close friend, and fellow researcher. The two irrevocably changed the course of physiology research.
Twenty years later, in 1921, while reading late into the night in his lab in Germany, Loewi dreamed of an experiment that would explain the mystery of how information moved between synapses. He woke up in the middle of the night, scribbled some notes, and then fell back asleep.
The next morning, when he got up, he couldn’t remember most of the experiment or his thoughts on it. Much to his chagrin, he couldn’t even decipher the scribbled notes he’d written the night before.
Fortunately, the next night, he had the same dream. This time, he got up and rushed to the institute’s lab to carry out the experiment right away.
He placed two beating frog hearts in two jars of saline solutions. One of these hearts still had the vagus nerve attached. When he stimulated this heart with electricity, it slowed down.
He then poured the saline from the first jar into the second, the one that contained the heart without a vagus. To his surprise, this heart also slowed down.
He reasoned that the first heart had released a chemical into the fluid, causing the second heart to slow down. He called the substance “Vagusstoff.”
Later, he discovered that the substance released was from the vagus nerve rather than the heart. Eventually, his English friend Dale isolated the chemical and renamed it Acetylcholine (ACh).
In 1936, Loewi and Dalle received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for discovering the first neurotransmitter.
In their paper titled Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders, the authors Breit, Kupferberg, Rogler, and Hasler write:
The vagus nerve is an essential part of the brain-gut axis and plays an important role in the modulation of inflammation, the maintenance of intestinal homeostasis, and the regulation of food intake, satiety, and energy homeostasis. An interaction between nutrition and the vagus nerve is well known, and vagal tone can influence food intake and weight gain.
Moreover, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the pathogenesis of psychiatric disorders, obesity as well as other stress-induced and inflammatory diseases.
Does the vagus nerve cause sweating?
No, the vagus nerve does not cause sweating, though cold, clammy sweat is a common finding in vasovagal syncope. Sweating is mediated by sympathetic postganglionic cholinergic nerves, and can be prevented by nerve block or atropine. Excessive sweating of the palms and soles (idiopathic hyperhidrosis) is linked to sympathetic nervous system hyperactivity.
Vasovagal syncope (pronounced SING-kuh-pee) is a sudden fainting spell, along with low blood pressure and pallor. In this, blood flow to the brain gets restricted, causing one to briefly lose consciousness. The most common causes of vasovagal syncope are severe pain, emotional stress, and extreme fatigue.
What are the functions of the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the main element of the parasympathetic nervous system. It regulates many biological activities such as mood, digestion, breathing, heart rate, and immune response. It is involved in the etiology of several psychiatric illnesses, obesity, and other stress-related and inflammatory diseases.
Some of its other functions are:
1. Memories: Recent research hints that vagus nerve stimulation could help in strengthening our memories. This could open up a world of possibilities for Alzheimer’s patients.
2. Inflammation: The role of the vagus in keeping down the inflammation in our body is also a promising direction of research.
3. Resilience: Those with a stronger vagal response, who get more affected by vagus nerve stimulation, might recover better after a stressful event (resilience).
4. Addiction: A January 2017 study shows vagus nerve stimulation therapy can help people overcome drug addiction. It helps them learn new behaviors to replace their drug-seeking behavior.
5. Vagus And Fainting: We can overstimulate our vagus nerve, and it would make us faint. Called “vagal syncope,” it happens because of a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate, which cuts blood flow to the brain.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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