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Monday, 7 November 2022

What is the vagus nerve and how can it help your wellness?

Let’s start at the beginning. Meet the vagus nerve. It’s the longest cranial nerve in your body, running from the brain all the way to your gut and is in communication with every major organ. In fact, most of the communication travelling through the vagus nerve is sent from our body to our brain rather than the other way around.

The main vagus nerve function is to transmit information to and from the central nervous system (CNS) maintaining control of the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. It plays a part in regulating many critical aspects of our physiology such as heart rate, blood pressure, speech, sweating, mood and speaking. It helps our bodies move into the rest and relax state. The ability to be able to switch back and forth between stimulation and relaxation is referred to as vagal tone and a healthy vagal tone allows us to experience that ‘Goldilocks’ effect of being just right, counterbalancing any stimulating situations effectively with relaxation.

Emerging evidence reveals a link between vagal tone and our health and wellbeing – both physically and emotionally. Low vagal tone has been recently associated with various chronic health conditions, including migraines, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease (Bonaz et al; 2017, Drewes et al; 2021, Gonzalez et al; 2019, Johnson & Wilson, 2018).

As we age the vagus nerve can lose its ability to switch back to that rest and relax mode, especially with stress. Luckily there are many ways that we can stimulate the vagus nerve on a daily basis. Here are five of my favourite ways to stimulate the vagus nerve.

#1 Singing/chanting

Our vagus nerve is connected to muscles at the back of the throat and the vocal cords so making noises with your throat like “AH" or chanting an"OM" or humming helps turn it on as does singing or gargling. Besides supporting the vagus nerve, what a great way to start your day singing at the top of your voice in the car or even better on the train! It has to be at the top of your voice in order to stimulate the vagus nerve. What fun!

#2 Laughter

When we laugh we release a lot of happy hormones (neurotransmitters) which can stimulate the vagus nerve. At the very least, our mood and stress levels improve, so whatever you need to do to enjoy a good belly laugh, do it hard and often (Dolgoff-Kasper et al; 2012).

#3 Cold exposure

While not the most pleasant of choices, over time taking cold showers, splashing cold water on your face or exposing your body to cold water increases stimulation of the vagus nerve and increases the activity of the rest and relax system.

#4 Deep breathing

Vagus nerve activity is modulated by the act of breathing. When we breathe out the vagus nerve secretes a chemical (neurotransmitter) called acetylcholine which slows the heart rate and promotes a relaxed state. Taking a few deep diaphragmatic breaths regularly, as taught in yoga and similar classes is one of the main ways to support vagal tone (Gerritsen & Band, 2018).

#5 Scalp massage or tickle

Having a scalp massage or tickling the face and neck affects the nerves that inhabit the same area of the brain as the vagus nerve. These areas, when stimulated, cause relaxation and increases vagal tone. What a great gift to give yourself.

In summary, including vagus nerve stimulation regularly by one or various means is a free and easy way to assist you on your journey to wellness.

References

Bonaz, B., Sinniger, V., & Pellissier, S. (2017). Vagus nerve stimulation: a new promising therapeutic tool in inflammatory bowel disease. Journal of internal medicine, 282(1), 46–63. https://doi.org/10.1111/joim.12611

Dolgoff-Kaspar, R., Baldwin, A., Johnson, M. S., Edling, N., & Sethi, G. K. (2012). Effect of laughter yoga on mood and heart rate variability in patients awaiting organ transplantation: a pilot study. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 18(5), 61–66.

Drewes, A. M., Brock, C., Rasmussen, S. E., Møller, H. J., Brock, B., Deleuran, B. W., Farmer, A. D., & Pfeiffer-Jensen, M. (2021). Short-term transcutaneous non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation may reduce disease activity and pro-inflammatory cytokines in rheumatoid arthritis: results of a pilot study. Scandinavian journal of rheumatology, 50(1), 20–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/03009742.2020.1764617

Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397

González, H., Yengo-Kahn, A., & Englot, D. J. (2019). Vagus Nerve Stimulation for the Treatment of Epilepsy. Neurosurgery clinics of North America, 30(2), 219–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nec.2018.12.005

Johnson, R. L., & Wilson, C. G. (2018). A review of vagus nerve stimulation as a therapeutic intervention. Journal of inflammation research, 11, 203–213. https://doi.org/10.2147/JIR.S163248

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Tracy Gaibisso

Tracy has been in clinical practice as a herbalist and Naturopath since 2002 with a special interest in pre-conception, fertility, women's hormones and reproductive health. In addition to her naturopathic qualifications, she has completed post-graduate training in wellness and has a Masters in reproductive medicine. She also currently sits on the Clinical Advisory Committee for Endometriosis Australia.

She offers couples the BEYOND FERTILITY ™ program to assist in achieving optimal outcomes for a healthy pregnancy and birth and offers other practitioners mentoring in the program. She also has her own range of herbal teas in this space.

She is a well-respected industry speaker and established workshop facilitator, speaking both nationally and internationally. In addition, she both supervises in the Clinic and lectures at Endeavour College of Natural Health Perth.

In her downtime, she is a self-confessed foodie and animal lover and you will often find her concocting recipes with medicinal herbs into teas, elixirs, oxymels, smoothies, oils and poultices and researching ways of resurrecting ancient healing knowledge into modern practice.

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