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Exploring the Vagus Nerve: Your Body's Hidden Gem

Welcome to our exploration of the vagus nerve – the silent powerhouse of our body's functioning. Often overlooked but profoundly influential, this cranial nerve holds sway over vital processes like heart rate, digestion, mood, & immune response.

In this blog post, we'll unravel the mysteries of the vagus nerve, shedding light on its multifaceted roles & the profound impact it has on our physical, mental, & emotional well-being. Join me as we delve into the wonders of neuroscience & celebrate the indispensable role of the vagus nerve in the intricate dance of human health.

Vagus Nerve

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What is the vagus nerve & it's function?

The vagus or vagal nerve is the longest cranial nerve of our autonomic nervous system, which, when functioning optimally, is responsible for keeping us in a healthy state of homeostasis. The autonomic nervous system is "automatic" & regulates bodily functions such as our immune system, sexual arousal, heart rate, blood pressure, & digestion by carrying sensory information from parts of our body to our brain - connected to the spinal chord, it splits off into other parts of the body via our neck & vital abdominal organs.

Vagal tone is the activity of the vagus nerve throughout the body. It's how the body communicates to the brain, giving you signals to help keep you safe & well. Having a 'high' vagal tone means you're able to return to balance (homeostasis) rapidly after a stressful situation. A 'low vagal tone' is when this function has been diminished, normally due to stress, which, when left unaddressed long term, can cause gut issues, difficulty focusing, depression, anxiety & an inability to self-regulate emotions.

The autonomic nervous system is continuously receiving sensory input & stimuli from both our inner & outer worlds, asking 'am I safe?' & reacting accordingly. Previously the autonomic nervous system has been viewed as only having two response pathways; sympathetic (fight or flight) & parasympathetic (rest & digest). Polyvagal theory opens up a new view that there are actually three pathways that make up the autonomic nervous system; our sympathetic nervous system (system of action), & two separate branches of the parasympathetic nervous system, the dorsal vagal complex (system of shutdown) & ventral vagal complex (system of connection).

Stress & The Vagus Nerve

Dorsal Vagal Complex

The oldest of the two branches of the vagus nerve, the dorsal vagal complex evolved 500 million years ago from a prehistoric fish called the Placodern. When regulated, this part of our system is in charge of our digestion & how well our body receives nourishment. When experiencing extreme stress or trauma & we're unable to take action to remove ourself from a situation, this most primitive part of our system can completely shut down, leading to dissociation, depression, immobilisation & a sense of freeze/ collapse.

It effects our diaphragm & internal organs below, including our spleen, liver, bladder, small intestine & kidneys. When this system is activated, feelings of numbness, disconnection (from both yourself & others), hopelessness & helplessness can take over. If stuck chronically in this state, it can lead to health conditions such as depression, type 2 diabetes & chronic fatigue.

Sympathetic Nervous System

This is our "fight or flight" system, our system of action. Evolving 400 million years ago, from a fish called Acanthodian, this is where movement truly became an additional survival strategy. This system gets activated when there is a perceived threat, meaning the sensed danger doesn't actually have to be real for our systems to switch into fight or flight. This is a fast moving system that triggers the release of the 'stress' hormones cortisol & adrenaline into our bodies, leaving us with emotions such as frustration, anger or anxiety & physical sensations such as increased heart rate or feeling on high alert.

The majority of people currently live in a chronic state of fight or flight, due to living in high stress environments, being overly stimulated, over worked & leading extremely busy lives. This leaves them disembodied & disengaged & with a whole host of physiological symptoms such as panic attacks, high cholesterol, chronic tension & stiffness & high blood pressure, to name a few.

Meditation & the Vagus Nerve

Ventral Vagal Complex

This is our system of connection, the newest in our evolutionary timeline, evolving around 200 million years ago. The ventral vagal complex is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, hosting activity in the the intestines, lungs, heart, throat, face & ears & controlling our heart & respiratory rhythms. Often known as our 'social engagement system' the activity from this system promotes feelings of belonging, safety & connection.

This is our system of safety, where we feel relaxed, & happy. We're comfortable & open enough to connect to ourselves & others & take part in activities such as dancing, singing, making love or preparing & sharing a meal. When functioning from this system our body releases our 'feel good' hormone serotonin & we feel a deep sense of love, presence, safety, satisfaction & joy.

How do you know if your vagal nerve is out of balance?

Many of us live in a chronic state of fight or flight. When left unregulated, this can develop into near total system shut down, leading to chronic physical illness as well as depression & disassociation. Other signs that you may be operating from your dorsal vagal complex or sympathetic nervous system (both physical & emotional) are; dizziness, severe &/ or frequent mood swings, bloating & abdominal pain, inability to focus, chronic tension, feeling lost, 'on edge' or alone & low energy.

If you relate to some of the symptoms above (& I know I do too) this may all seem a little worrying & overwhelming. The good news is, we all have the tools already within us, to begin to heal & self-sooth.

Cold Water Therapy

So, how do we keep our vagaus nerve healthy?

Firstly, let's take it back to basics;

  • Eat well - focusing on fresh, whole plant-based foods - eat the rainbow

  • Get enough sleep - we're all different but around eight hours a night is recommended

  • Drink plenty of water - to keep yourself hydrated

  • Move regularly - find ways to incorporate fun movements into your every day routine

  • Decrease stress - Start perhaps by attending a local yoga class, finding a free online mediation to practice a few times a week or try not to use social media at least one hour after waking up/ before going to sleep to avoid over stimulation.

Stimulating the vagus nerve - techniques to try

Once you've optimised your every day routine (by implementing the above), you can start to try the techniques listed below to see what works for you. These tools are easily accessible & directly stimulate the vagus nerve, helping to sooth the nervous system & return you to a state of homeostasis.

  • Humming - vocalising stimulates the glossopharyngeal nerve within the vocal system which is linked to the vagal nerve - you could hum whilst doing the dishes or practice Brahmari (bee breath)

  • Sing - like humming, this activates the vagus nerve via the throat - try singing your favourite song in the shower, sounding 'om' at the end of your asana practice or chanting mantra to start or end your day. Doing this on your own works a treat but doing this as part of a group is pure magic!

  • Cold water exposure resets the abdominal organs & activates a relaxation response in the body, leading to a sense of calm & wellbeing. If you're new to cold water exposure, start by simply splashing your face with cold water each morning, then gradually build up to cold showers & wild sea swims.

  • Sighing - when we sigh, we extend our exhales which taps into our parasympathetic nervous system. A 'sigh of relief' is our bodies natural & automatic way of self-regulating after a stressful or tense situation but we can produce a sigh at any time, voluntarily, to create the same effect.

  • Gargling - similarly to singing & humming, gargling stimulates the vagus nerve from the neck/ throat, helping to improve vagal tone. Do this with water when cleaning your teeth to seamlessly incorporate it into your day.

  • Embodied movement - this is where we move away from strict alignment & trying to make specific shapes with the body, instead welcoming in a sense of exploration & playfulness. By focusing on breath & sensation, we can begin to re-build trust within ourselves, learning to re-listen to the body & the signs & signals it gives us.

  • Massage/ self-touch - gentle massage on the body, specifically around the head, ears & neck stimulates the vagus nerve via touch & also helps bring a sense of grounding. You can always massage your own face & neck if receiving a massage from someone else doesn't feel comfortable.

Bee/ Bhramari Bee breath

Now you have the basics of polyvagal theory & the vagus nerve. This is a vast topic, so take time to digest, re-read (if need be) & implement the information here. Note, that this process is gradual & being consistent, with small, healthy habits over a long period of time/ a lifetime, is going to be far more beneficial to your mental & physical wellbeing long term, than small, intense bursts. Be kind to & patient with yourself.

I am now incorporating vagus nerve stimulating techniques into my weekly studio classes - find out more & join a class here.

If you'd like to take a deeper dive together & work 1:1 - find out more & reach out to me here.



Welcome to my little corner of the internet where I share all about yoga & intentional & authentic living for a healthier mind, body, soul, Earth connection.

Have a blessed day ♡

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