The vagus nerve is one of our body’s most useful nerves, helping to keep us happy and relaxed. It performs several vital functions for us, such as signaling the gut to digest, the lungs to breathe, and the heart to beat, all without our conscious awareness.
But we can also consciously calm the vagus nerve to help ourselves relax. Let’s take a moment to ride along the vagus.
What is the vagus nerve?
We have 12 nerves that travel out of our brain into our body, called the cranial nerves. The vagus nerve is the tenth, and the longest, of them. In women, it runs from the neck down to the womb.
The name “vagus” comes from Latin, meaning “wandering,” since the nerve “wanders” from our brainstem to organs in our chest and abdomen, eventually reaching the large gut in men and the uterus in women.
Also called the wandering nerve, it carries messages from our vital organs, such as the heart and the gut, to the brain, lowering blood pressure, slowing breathing, secreting digestive juices, and calming the body overall.
So, if we find ways to stimulate our vagus, it can relax us.
What does the vagus nerve do?
Our autonomic nervous system has two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system controls our body’s functions when we need to be 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.
The vagus is a key part of our other system, the parasympathetic nervous system. It regulates the body functions that we do not control voluntarily, like the heartbeat rhythm and the breathing rate. The vagus primarily relaxes all the organs it touches on its way down from the brain.
The vagus also has sensory and motor duties. It brings sensory information from the organs, like the heart and the gut, to the brain. Its motor functions involve moving the muscles that help in speaking and swallowing.
Our wandering nerve is also in charge of bowel movements, perspiration, and the release of tears, saliva, and stomach acid. It makes us cough when a cotton bud tries to clean out our earwax, and gag when anything touches the back of our throat.
Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve with electricity can reduce inflammation of rheumatic arthritis.
There is one vagus nerve on each side of our body.
Vagus and Orgasm in Women: Vaginal-cervical self-stimulation in women with complete spinal cord injuries can help them have orgasms, as studies show. It is because the vagus nerve in women provides a direct sensory pathway from the vagina, 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. It is clinically assessed by your heart rate variability (HRV).
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.
When the vagal tone is low, we experience symptoms like constant fatigue, allergic reactions, migraine, tinnitus, and mood disorders, among others.
Excessive vagal tone may cause vasovagal syncope, or sudden fainting spell, along with low blood pressure, pallor, and sweating. The most common causes of this vagus overactivity are severe pain, emotional stress, and extreme fatigue.
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.
What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)?
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is a medical method to stimulate the vagus. In this, surgeons implant a magnetic strip beneath the chest skin, which sends mild electric pulses to stimulate 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 resistant depression. People suffering from chronic pain and stiffness are also benefiting VNS.
It also appears to be a promising option for anxiety disorders resistant to other treatments, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, what if we could stimulate the Vagus nerve ourselves, naturally? What steps can we take to activate it?
How To Calm The Vagus Nerve And Relax Naturally?
When stressed, we can calm the vagus nerve to relax, without drugs or devices. Doing this can also help us remember things better.
Stimulating the vagus nerve has many proven therapeutic effects, mainly because of its relaxing and anti-inflammatory properties. The vagus works with your body’s natural physiology to switch over from the fight-or-flight (stressed) state to the rest-and-digest (relaxed) mode.
• 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).
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.
In 1902, the German researcher Otto Loewi went to London as a guest researcher at Ernest Starling’s laboratory at University College. There, Loewi met his lifelong friend and fellow researcher, Henry Dale. The two changed physiology research forever.
Back in Germany, Loewi fell asleep while reading late into the night in 1921 and dreamed of an experiment that would solve the mystery of how information flows across synapses. He woke up in the middle of the night, scribbled some notes, and then fell back asleep.
Much to his chagrin, he couldn’t recall most of the experiment or his thoughts on it the next morning. He couldn’t even decipher the hasty notes he had made the night before.
Fortunately, he had the same dream the next night. This time, he got up and rushed to the institute’s lab to carry out the experiment.
He took two beating frog hearts and placed them 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.
Next, he poured the saline from the slowed-heart jar into the second jar, the one that held the heart without a vagus. Much to his surprise, this heart also slowed down.
He surmised that the first heart had released a chemical into the fluid that slowed the second heart. Later, he found that it was the vagus, not the heart, that had released the chemical.
He called it “Vagusstoff.” Eventually, his 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.
Some Other Strange Roles of The Vagus Nerve
- Memories: Recent research hints that vagus nerve stimulation could help in strengthening our memories. This could open up a world of possibility for Alzheimer’s patients.
- Inflammation: The role of the vagus in keeping down the inflammation in our body is also a promising direction of research.
- Resilience: Those with a stronger vagal response, who get more affected by vagus nerve stimulation, might recover better after a stressful event (resilience).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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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.
• Our story: Happiness Project
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