How well do you know your vagus nerve?
I've come to know my own vagus nerve quite well recently. In fact, I've named him Johnny (as in Johnny Vegas...get it?)
I'd heard loads of chatter about the mind/gut connection in articles and books and became fascinated about the subject. I've always been certain that what I eat effects my thoughts, and in reverse, how what I'm thinking determines how my tummy feels.
So, to begin. What exactly is the vagus nerve and where is it?
Our vagus nerve is a winding, wiggly, wavering nerve that connects most of our major organs between our brain and our colon. Imagine it like a system of roots or cables sending messages throughout our body. Our vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body. And technically it comes as a pair of two vagus nerves - one for the right side of your body and one for the left. It wanders to the lowest viscera of our abdomen touching our heart and most other major organs along the way.
It’s called “vagus” because it wanders, like a vagrant, among our organs. The word vagus meaning wandering in Latin.
So, what's the big deal about this wiggly nerve?
The vagus nerve has been talked about a fair bit over the past century or so, especially more recently. It’s been described as many things, but especially being largely responsible for our mind-body connection. Acting as a mediator between thinking and feeling. I’ve heard it beautifully interpreted by one wellbeing journalist as a “physical manifestation of the soul”. Also “When people say ‘trust your gut,’” as one Psychology Today writer put it several years ago, “they really mean ‘trust your vagus nerve.’”
The vagus nerve is command central for the function of our parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow us down, to relax us and to calm us. It uses neurotransmitters to literally lower our heart rate, our blood pressure, and helps our heart and other organs to slow down.
At the other end of the scale, when our vagus nerve disengages, our body goes into anxiety disarray. A racing heart, dizziness, dry mouth, stomach pains and light-headedness start to activate. Crikey, I know these symptoms so well, I've had them many, many times.
Keep your vagus nerve stimulated and happy
The health of our vagus nerve has been referred to on a tonal index. A higher vagal tone index is linked to good physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, low mood, lethargy and heart issues.
Once you start to understand the incredible power of our vagus nerve, next you can begin to practice ways to strengthen it to keep you calm and collected - even in times of distress.
The more things you do things to stimulate it, such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga, the more you can banish the effects of our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight mode). Dr Lucy Norcliffe-Kaufmann is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology at New York University. She noted that the ideal, most calming way to breathe is six times a minute: five seconds in, five seconds out.
Other activities that are believed to improve vagal tone include singing, humming and laughing. Massage therapy and Acupuncture are also thought to naturally stimulate the vagus nerve with positive effects.
Try it for yourself
Finally, try starting your day by splashing yourself in the face with cold water or having a cold rinse in the shower before you get out. Cold exposure is thought to have great benefits in lowering your sympathetic nervous system and activating your vagus nerve. Start with a cold rinse of 10 seconds and work your way up to longer periods from there on…
Also, why not give your vagus nerve a name? Next time you are feeling yourself getting anxious or wound up, just have a word with Johnny, he will sort it all out for you.