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The Vagus Nerve: What It Is and How It Can Help You Tap Into Your Calm
October 2, 2020
You’ve probably heard the vagus nerve mentioned at some point, but perhaps never understood what it is and why it’s important. When it comes to what’s happening inside the body, it can feel difficult to wrap our heads around all these parts and processes we can’t see. So we’re going to pull back the curtain and peer inside the body to understand the vagus nerve function and how this little powerhouse is key to our health and wellbeing.
Learn more about the vagus nerve by listening to Untangle below, The Podcast from Meditation Studio, and Muse.
From helping you dodge an oncoming car to keeping your heart beating, your nervous system is what makes a lot of essential things happen. You have hundreds of nerves in your body that keep everything running and the vagus nerve (also known as “nerve X”) is one of the most important.
The word vagus means “wandering” in Latin and that’s exactly what it does— meanders from your brain to organs in your neck, chest, and abdomen. Many nerves have either sensory or motor function, while some, like the vagus, do both. Its jobs include helping your taste (sensory) as well as move the muscles of your neck that help you swallow and speak (motor) (1).
The vagus is also heavily involved in the critical body functions of digestion, respiration, and heart rate. It operates as a two-way communication highway. Information flows back and forth from the organs to the brain. Via the vagus, the brain is able to know if all is well in the body, and if it’s okay to relax (2). To better understand the critical role this nerve plays, it can be helpful to zoom out and look at more of what the nervous system does and how it stays in balance.
Parasympathetic vs Sympathetic
(and how this relates to the vagus)
Your nervous system is divided into your central nervous system (CNS), made up of your brain and spinal cord and peripheral nervous system (PNS), which connects the CNS to the rest of your body. Your PNS is further divided into your voluntary (i.e., stretching your arms overhead) and involuntary actions (i.e., breathing). And—we’re almost there—your involuntary is split into your sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) (3).
Put simply, the sympathetic’s job is to mobilize you for action while the job of your parasympathetic is to relax you. The sympathetic does an amazing job helping you focus on exactly what you need to do to survive. It’s what helps kick you into high alert mode and give you a surge of energy when you need to escape a threat (i.e., running from a burning building).
In contrast, when your parasympathetic side is activated, you feel calm and relaxed. It’s estimated that 75% of all parasympathetic nerve fibers come from the vagus nerve and when these are activated, the involuntary processes mentioned earlier (digestion, respiration, and heart rate function) can happen (4). However, for our parasympathetic system to activate, our stress levels need to be low (5).
The problem is that nowadays our body’s stress response is triggered all the time. From forgetting to pay your phone bill to worrying about meeting a work deadline, many of us find ourselves in a constant state of low-level stress. And since the nervous system doesn’t know the difference between what’s life-threatening and what’s not, it responds the same way to all of these stresses (6).
This is why actively working to strengthen our parasympathetic—and thus the vagus nerve function—is so important. When we stimulate the vagus nerve with deep breathing exercises, for example, it increases “parasympathetic tone” or “vagal tone” and a feeling of calm (2).
Strengthening the nerve also helps decrease inflammation, lower heart rate, and blood pressure as well as boost emotional resilience (2). Other activities that help strengthen your vagus include:
Think positive and kind thoughts about other people
Singing and humming
Keep your gut bacteria healthy
With an increasing number of people living in a state of low-level stress, more are suffering from weakened immune systems and organ failure. Fortunately, there are a lot of simple things we can do to flip the script and bring balance back into our bodies. One of the most powerful places to start is through understanding your vagus nerve function and actively working to strengthen it.