Question: what’s the most important nerve in your body that you’ve never heard of?
Nerves are the highways or motorways that link up all the different cities – or organs – to the capital – the brain. If the M1 was closed, you could imagine the chaos that would ensue everywhere between London and Leeds! I think it’s fair to say that the nerves are the unheralded heroes of our body – the most important things we never think about (as long as they’re working well!). The Vagus nerve, or tenth cranial nerve, is the longest nerve in our body, connecting the brain to virtually every internal organ!
Why is it important?
The Vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the system that automictically takes care of our body’s inner workings without any conscious thought from our end. Things like breathing, heart rate, pupil dilation etc. all fall under the ANS’ remit.
The autonomic nervous system is split into two parts
1. Sympathetic nervous system
2. Parasympathetic nervous system
You may have heard from your parents as a child that you shouldn’t run or play immediately after eating because your food won’t digest properly. (On a side note, this made me think that if I just ate every half an hour, I’d never have to run… wishful thinking!)
Anyway, like with much of what our mums told us when we were kids, this was great advice, because digestion is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system and running (or an increase in heart rate) is controlled by the sympathetic heart rate. Importantly, both systems can’t engage effectively at the same time. So, if we go for a run after eating, our sympathetic nervous system will engage, at the expense of our parasympathetic and our food will stop digesting.
The same is true of healing and relaxation. Our body is only able to relax and heal when the parasympathetic nervous system is switched on. If you’re constantly stressed or stuck in a state of trauma, your autonomic nervous system is going to be out of whack because there’ll be an over-exertion of your sympathetic nervous system.
So – where does the Vagus nerve come in? When we stimulate our Vagus nerve, we’re working with the parasympathetic side of the system and sending a signal to our body that it’s time to relax. Our heart rate and blood pressure will automatically reduce. An activated Vagus nerve is also vital in activating the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. Basically, if your immune system is always being stimulated (which is the case with autoimmune diseases, cancers, and a whole host of other issues ranging from autism to Alzheimers), rather than having a positive impact on the body, it causes a negative one. The cholinergic pathway puts a halt on that response.
By manually activating your Vagus nerve daily, you strengthen it, thus not only making yourself more resilient to stressors (internal and external) but also ensuring that if you do become stressed you’re able to relax quicker. Staying in “rest and digest mode” for longer allows your body more time and space to heal.
There are lots of ways to stimulate your Vagus nerve, including but not limited to those listed below. Pick the ones that sound like they’d work for you and make yourself a time table for the week. Do a couple of different ones a day. Notice how your body feels afterwards!
Stimulate the Vagus nerve by:
- Deep breathing (Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Your belly should be moving out as you breathe in and in as your breathe out.)
- Cold showers (start with a few seconds at the end of your shower and build yourself up to standing under the cold water for a couple of minutes)
- Gargling to stimulate your gag reflex (sounds crazy but try it! Tilt your head and gargle until you gag and spit the water out. Repeat 3-4x)
- Meditation and/or Prayer (be in the present moment / concentrate)
- Socialising (a happy/positive social experience)
- Walking in nature (at least 20-30 min at a time)
- Laughter (another golden bit of advice from our mums!: laughter is the best medicine!)
- Gratitude (keep a journal and every evening, write down 5 things you were grateful for that day. If you don’t want to write, say them out loud before going to sleep.)
- Fasting (not every day of course – however regular fasting or intermittent fasting is encouraged.)