Vagus Nerve - The Body's Communication Highway
Your Vagus Nerve is an important cranial nerve that extends from your brain stem, down your spine connecting to several important organs and into the pelvis.
It acts as your body's communication highway and works closely with the gut. 80-90% of the communication goes from your stomach and intestine up to your brain providing information on digestion, immune response, mood and also information about the environment (hence gut feeling).
The Vagus Nerve controls and contributes to many things our bodies automatically do, including:
Communicating with your lungs to help you breathe
Keep your blood pressure levels stable
Activating your immune response
Decrease inflammation by sending an anti-inflammatory signal
Controlling your heart rate
Allows your gut and brain to communicate
Helps you relax and stay calm making it easier to manage anxiety and stress
It is also responsible for your parasympathetic nervous system which allows you to rest, digest and recover from stressful situations. When the vagus nerve is stimulated it helps the body to move away from the fight or flight response, reducing the physiological symptoms of anxiety and stress. When you have a healthy vagal tone it means that you have better physical and mental wellbeing.
We can actively stimulate our vagus nerve to enhance our wellbeing and promote its health.
Why it is helpful to stimulate the Vagus Nerve:
“By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.” — Dr Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist
Ways of stimulating your Vagus Nerve:
Cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and can lower your sympathetic response (fight or flight) and increase parasympathetic activity. This has been promoted quite a bit recently. Start small with this one and perhaps try finishing your shower by turning the temperature down bit by bit until you build your tolerance.
Singing, humming, chanting, gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat and by doing these things you can activate the nerve. Chanting has been around for centuries as a natural way to calm the body and mind. Singing to yourself or whilst you are driving is also a good option.
Deep and slow breathing is another way to activate the vagus nerve and decrease anxiety and stress. Try breathing deeply from your diaphragm, ensuring you expand your whole belly, back and sides.
Laughter, socialising and community
Hang out with, hug and laugh with friends. If you can’t do that, reflect on times when you have been in connection with others, phone a friend or family member, connect online or watch a comedy.
Omega 3 fatty acids
These are primarily found in fish and fish oil supplements. They are essential to the normal functioning of the body, brain and the nervous system and is an essential fatty acid that our bodies don’t naturally produce.
Exercise, Yoga and Meditation
Exercise releases endorphins that help us to feel good. Find an exercise that you enjoy so that it is easier to maintain. Both Yoga and Meditation encourages deep breathing and single-pointed focus promoting relaxation and parasympathetic nervous system. If you have never tried yoga, there are loads of content by Yoga with Adriene on YouTube.
Self-massage and foot massages have been shown to soothe the body, decreasing our fight or flight response and allowing us to get into our bodies and provide ourselves with some comfort and attention.
Student Wellbeing Advisor - Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry & Health