The Vagus Nerve: The Basics
The vagus nerve is a large nerve that carries information between your brain and your internal organs that helps to control the body’s response in times of rest and relaxation. This nerve originates inside of the brain and branches out in every direction through the neck and torso, where it is then responsible for carrying sensory information from the skin of your body, controlling the muscles that are used to swallow and speak, and influences your immune system.
The vagus nerve is the tenth of twelve cranial nerves that extend directly from the brain. While many refer to the vagus nerve as being one single nerve, it is a pair of nerves that extend from the medulla oblongata area of the brain stem. The name “vagus” nerve comes from the Latin word for “wandering,” which is fitting for this very branched nerve.
The vagus nerve provides the primary control for the nervous systems parasympathetic division, which is the rest-and-digest counterpoint to the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response. If the body is not under stress, this nerve sends commands that slow heart and breathing rates and increase digestion. However, in times of stress, the control shifts to the sympathetic system, giving the opposite effects. This nerve also carries messages from your organs back to your brain.
The Vagus Nerve Gut Connection
Much of the vagus nerve extends into the digestive system. This bundle of nerves sends messages from the gut to the brain, and back again. The movement of the muscles in the digestive tract are controlled by a separate nervous system embedded within the walls of the digestive system.
The remaining 80% to 90% of the neurons carry sensory information from the stomach and intestines to the brain. This communication line between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract is called the brain-gut axis, and it keeps the brain informed about the status of muscle contraction, the speed of food passage through the gut and feelings of hunger or satiety. Studies from the Journal of Internal Medicine have shown that stimulation of the vagus nerve has the potential to improve irritable bowel syndrome.
Vagus Nerve Damage
There are various ways to tell if your vagus nerve is struggling depending on some of the body issues you are having. Everyone exhibits different symptoms with a nervous system overload. There are early cues, which if noticed, can help you to get the help you need to work towards a solution. These cues are:
- Heightened anxiety
- Quick temper, or quick defensiveness
- Cold hands and feet
- Jumpiness and nervousness
- Trouble sleeping
- Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
- Pelvic tension, diaphragm tension, jaw tension
- Worried thoughts
- Low libido and lack of sexual drive
- Menstrual cycle irregularity
- Adrenal fatigue (tiredness, hair loss, lack of motivation)
- Miscalculated speaking or saying things that are inappropriate.
How to Work on your Vagus Nerve
There are certain at-home exercises and tasks you can do up to three times each day that could tone and strengthen your vagus nerve. Most of these “exercises” involve slowing down and getting to know your body. Living in today’s world almost guarantees that you are struggling in some way. Here are some quick ideas on how you can work on your vagus nerve.
- Singing. Sing deeply from your abdomen taking deep breaths along the way.
- Dancing. Slow, steady beats and grounded, purposeful movements.
- Pelvic massage. Yes, this means internal massage or masturbation.
- Abyangha. Or, all over body massage.
- Swimming. Ensure you are taking long strokes and deep breaths.
- Abdominal massage. Use oil, with or without cupping devices, in a clockwise circle.
- Head scratching. Do this in two-minute segments, all over the head.
- Cold showers. Only stand in the cold water for thirty-seconds to two minutes.
- Controlled diaphragm breathing. Deeply and slowly.
- Sunlight on your retina. Do this in the morning with the first morning light.
- Digital Sunrise & Sunset. No electronic devices an hour before bed and an hour after waking up.
If you suspect you may be having issues with your vagus nerve, do not hesitate to contact your doctor to begin testing and treatment. Read more about the vagus nerve in our vagus nerve series articles.