Have you ever heard of the vagus nerve?
Let me tell you a story. My close friend suffers from epilepsy. She has tried many medications and visited multiple specialists – her condition is under control, but my friend is a very stubborn girl. She continues to do research on her condition and is constantly learning new things about how to help herself. She called me recently with some news: “I need to fix my vagus nerve!” she said excitedly. “Errr.. what nerve?”–I felt slightly embraced–obviously I forgot something from anatomy class. Well…that was some time ago 😉
The vagus nerve or the X nerve “wanders” thought the body–hence its name! (vagus in Latin = to wander). It is the longest cranial nerve which connects the base of the brain to the heart, lungs, and gut. Its branches interact with other major organs such as spleen, liver, gallbladder, kidneys, female fertility organs and also your ears, neck, and tongue.
Otto Loewi, a German scientist, received a Nobel prize in 1936 for his discovery of the “Vaggustoff” or what we know today as the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a bit like Jekyll and Hyde (having both calming and stimulating properties). On one hand, it is a pacifier, slowing down the heart rate, dilating blood vessels and aiding digestion. On the other, is a stimulant, contracting the muscles, activating the pain response and boosting memory, learning and attention.
The vagus nerve uses acetylcholine as the main mean of exerting its action.
But how does it all relate to my friend?
As it turns out, the vagus nerve may bring a new hope for people suffering from seizures and also chronic inflammatory conditions. Neurosurgeon and immunologist Dr. Kevin Tracy is testing electrostimulation of the vagus nerve to fight diseases such as epilepsy, arthritis and even depression.
What does the vagus nerve do for you–and how can you help it?
1. The vagus nerve helps you to control stress levels.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve might be especially helpful when you feel stressed and your breath becomes erratic and shallow.
Try abdominal breathing – hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 6 and inhale for 5 counts. This will help you relax and unwind.
2. The vagus nerve impacts your mental health.
It helps to create memories and improve learning capabilities. The latest research suggests its potential role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
In order to keep you vagus nerve happy and healthy, try toning it through mediation, singing or chanting and laughter. Meet with your friends more often as social relationships make your vagus nerve stronger!
3. The vagus nerve gives you that “gut feeling.”
The vagus nerve is a bit like “me-to-you you-to-me” talk, which means that the electro impulses are being transferred from the gut to the brain and vice versa. This helps to regulate feelings of anxiety and fear.
Maintain a healthy gut – support it with a diet rich in probiotic foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha or coconut yogurt.
4. The vagus nerve may lower inflammation.
It has the potential to lower the pro-inflammatory cytokines (messengers responsible for inflammation).
This is quite important when we talk about long-term chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis or lupus.
Exercise, especially yoga and Tai Chi, has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and keep the body in a relaxed, anti-inflammatory state.
5. The vagus nerve helps you create memories.
The vagus nerve directly stimulates the parts of the brain that process recently acquired information.
To stimulate your vagus nerve, try direct impact: neck and feet massage or (if you are brave enough!) cold water submersion (cold shower or face dunking).
Have you tried these ways to support your vagus nerve?