Who would like to come on a trip to Vagus with me this month? No. I’m not talking desert landscapes, slot machines and Elvis (different spelling anyway). I’m talking about what may be the most important nerve you never knew you had, the Vagus Nerve.
The cranial nerves (of which there are 12 pairs) are named because they arise directly from your brain, not your spinal cord and pass through different bits of your skull. Basically, these nerves connect your brain to your body. Cranial nerves are responsible for such things as:
- Moving your eyeballs and eyeballs
- Tears, taste, saliva, facial expressions
- Moving your head
The one we are interested in today though, is number 10 (not of the Bo Derek kind), the Vagus Nerve.
Viva Las Vagus
The vagus nerve is the longest of your cranial nerves. Its name comes from the Latin, meaning, wandering or straying (sounds like some of my ex-boyfriends – but that’s another story…). It runs from the brain to the face and thorax to the abdomen. It has branches that reach your skin, ears, voice box, heart and digestive tract (meandering right?).
The Vagus Nerve may be the key to your well-being
That, my friends is quite a lofty claim, I know, I know. Read on to find out just a couple of things this nerve is responsible for.
The vagus nerve controls your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Think REST and DIGEST. How well have you been doing these things lately?
New research shows that the vagus nerve (VN) may be the missing link to chronic inflammation. How so? Well, the VN operates a network of fibres sitting like little spies. When they get a signal, they alert the brain to send out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that regulate your immune and therefore, your inflammatory, response.
My thoughts on inflammation are that if we row our boat to the ‘source of the Nile’ we will find inflammation, along with stress, sitting there, like the Queen and the King – setting fire to all the villages below. Current research will tell you that depression is not a serotonin deficiency, but an inflamed brain. Interesting huh? If we could tone the VN, would we feel less sad? Point to ponder…
Most of us have heard that the stomach is a second brain. In my travelling days, I would get so nervous leaving Australia that I would spend the time in the toilets vomiting before boarding the plane (and I’m not scared of flying). Now I know why. My stomach was using the VN to tell my brain how I was feeling. So now you know. those ‘gut feelings’ you have? They are real!
Are you able to sit back and relax easily? I know for many of you, you feel guilty when you are sitting doing nothing. Well, the VN initiates your body’s relaxation response. Apparently those of us with stronger VN responses recover more quickly after we have experienced a stressful event or been or ill or injured. Now you have no excuse to chill out and de-stress.
Memories, light the corners of my mind
A number of studies in rats has shown that VN stimulation improves their working memories (poor old rats – personally, I would not want to remember that I am in a lab being experimented on!). Early studies are showing promise for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.
I can’t get no…satisfaction
Remember that gut-brain connection? It’s now thought that obesity (which is complex and multi-factorial) may be associated with lowered VN sensitivity. Meaning, a lack of satiation following food.
‘Other stuff’ its responsible for
- Heart rate
- Gag reflex – to test the vagus nerve, a doctor may check the gag reflex. During this part of the examination, the doctor may use a soft cotton swab to tickle the back of the throat on both sides. This should cause the person to gag. If the person doesn’t gag, this may be due to a problem with the vagus nerve.
There is a new field of medicine called Bio-electrics which stimulates the Vagus Nerve to help control epileptic seizures and inflammation (think conditions like rheumatoid arthritis). Which is all very well and good, but not readily available to us.
It’s great knowing this stuff, but can we actually do anything about it? Apparently, yes (otherwise what’s the point of writing this, right?).
Herewith some ways you may be able to improve vagus nerve tone
- Sing. Remember, the VN runs along your throat. Apparently belting out ‘I will survive’ at the top of your lungs activates the VN. Personally, the only time I hit the right note is when I’m passing it! Thankfully chanting works just as well. OMMMMMMMMMMMMM.
- Hang out with good people. It’s all about positive social relationships. Right then, where’s my Rolodex?
- Yoga – one study showed that 12 weeks of yoga improved mood. I certainly feel like it’s the best anti-depressant I’ve ever taken
- Exercise – Mum, are you reading this…?
- Fasting (also good for the waist-line)
- Meditation – practice loving kindness
- Cold water. Best is a cold shower, but you could just splash cold water on your face in the morning and that will help (a habit French women apparently do and could be why they look so young and trim…) Check out this blog post I wrote about other benefits of cold water.
Last, but not least, my favourite way to stimulate myself (and I like to do it really often) is…laughter. I am extremely lucky that I come from a family of funny people – many of the jokes at my expense!
There you have it folks, another key to feeling good and getting the most out of every day, naturally.