The Soothing Vagus: How Our Wandering Nerve Returns Us To Calm

 
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by Dr. Lara Briden

on July 20, 2015

The vagus nerve is your CEO of calm. It’s the commander-in-chief of your parasympathetic nervous system.

The vagus nerve has the important job of ending your body’s fight-or-flight response once a stress has passed. That’s why vagus nerve stimulation is so effective for mood, and has been approved as a novel treatment for depression. Vagus nerve stimulation can also relieve migraines and rapidly quench inflammation.

Via: Alila Medical Media | Shutterstock

Via: Alila Medical Media | Shutterstock

The vagus nerve is like your body’s master reset button.

Vagus means wandering in Latin, so the nerve was called the “wandering” nerve for the circuitous path it takes from the brain to all the organs in the chest and abdomen. The vagus nerve influences heart rate, respiration, and digestion, but it’s also the brain’s way of monitoring what is going on with those organs. In fact, most of the traffic in the vagus (80 percent of its messages) travel upstream from the body to the brain. That’s why the vagus is so important for mood. It monitors the organs to determine if all is well, and when it is, then the mind can rest easy. Contented.

A good indicator of vagal activation is something called heart rate variability. With higher vagal tone, there is slight decrease in heart rate with exhalation, and that’s a good thing. Higher vagal tone (and therefore higher heart rate variability) is associated with better general health including better digestion, reduced inflammation, increased emotional resilience and longevity. Lower vagal tone is associated with negative moods, more inflammation, and heart attacks.

People with high vagal tone have higher levels of oxytocin and are more prone to feelings of altruism. So the vagus has also been called the love nerve, or the compassion nerve. According to researcher Dr Dacher Keltner, it is vagus activation that gives us the warm, expansive feeling in our chests when we experience — or even think about — human kindness.

We used to think that some people were just born with high vagal tone. We now know that vagal tone can be improved.

How To Activate Your Vagus Nerve

  • Deep breath (try the 4-7-8 technique).
  • Do yoga.
  • Meditate.
  • Spend time in nature– practice earthing.
  • Think positive thoughts about other people.
  • Cultivate healthy intestinal bacteria (because they activate the vagus nerve and trigger the release of more of the calming neurotransmitter GABA in the brain).
  • Taste something bitter. Herbalists have traditionally recommended bitter herbs to aid digestion and also — interestingly — to calm the mind.

Yours in Health,

Lara

 

 

Natural health evangelist, hormone expert, and author of Period Repair Manual, Lara Briden first worked as an evolutionary biologist at the University of Calgary. She went on to graduate as a naturopathic doctor from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) in Toronto. Her love of science and the natural world has informed the way she practices medicine. During her nearly twenty years of practice, thousands of patients have entrusted her with their hormone stories. She shares what she’s learned at larabriden.com.

there are 6,011 Comments

David Scott Lynn

Nice Article!

I think it’s important to further emphasize that,as you reported, 80% of vagus nerve function is SENSORY, meaning delivering information UP and IN to the central nervous system and brain.

This means, for example, that when people say they are “speaking from the their heart,” that is NOT necessarily a metaphor, but is often a physiological reality. Much of our past experience is “stored” in our neuro-visceral tissues and is a source of “data” (via the sensory portion of the vagus nerve and other nerves) about how we REALLY feel about various events in life, both internal and external.

BTW, this does not mean “speaking from the heart” by-passes the feeling, thinking, meditating brain (the Mind). I believe the feelings arriving from the body to the mind (whether it be feelings, thoughts or stillness) pass through and inform our mind of what’s true, or not, and the mind translates the sensory inputs from the body into something intelligible.

Given that the body does NOT speak in English (the body speaks in “body” language) the better our minds get at interpreting those messages from the body, the better our body-mind can produce more relevant and useful responses to what’s happening in life and current reality.

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Janet Caliri

I”d love to see an active diagram of body intuition: when we put the base of our palms upon our eye lids (as when we’re stressed or baby crying) and automatically take a big inhale, calming us down.

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