It is responsible for the harmonious functioning of many internal organs. It can calm the body down from physical or psychological stress. It gives the “butterfly effect” in our stomachs. None of our bodies would do without it, but, interestingly, some of you will hear this name for the first time — vagus nerve(also known as wandering nerve).
The wandering nerve
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ability to relax — it calms the body after various stimulations, it returns the body to a normal state after experiencing fright and stress. The main element of this system is the vagus nerve or the wandering nerve. It is the longest cranial nerve. It runs from the brain to the thorax and, close to the esophagus, enters the abdominal cavity through an opening in the diaphragm. It innervates the neck, chest, some organs of the abdominal cavity; pharyngeal, soft palate and laryngeal muscles, heart, lungs, digestive system; captures heartbeats and the feeling of a “butterfly belly”. If the travel of this wandering nerve through our body is at any point disrupted, it disturbs the condition of the whole body.
Asleep wandering nerve = stress
The wandering nerve is responsible for the harmonious functioning of the body: it stimulates the production of new cells in the brain; helps to cope with stress, anxiety, agitation; is responsible for good memory; helps fight inflammatory diseases, balances high blood pressure; inhibits the production of the hormone cortisol and other oxidants that adversely affect our brain and body; blocks damage to the immune system, which can lead to systemic inflammation of the whole body, aging; helps prevent depression; allows to sleep well; increases human growth hormones, resistance to allergic reactions, etc. The vagus nerve sends signals to the heart and lungs, slowing the heart rate and deepening breathing. As a result, it helps us feel calm and relaxed, focused, or pleasantly excited.
However, the harmonious pattern is disturbed when a person becomes anxious — the throat dries out, the voice strains, the heart starts beating faster, breathing becomes more frequent and superficial. The wandering nerve responds to the physical and psychological stress caused to the body, internal or external factors: high heat, bodily trauma, fear or shock, physical and psychological stress.
Mission six exhalations
The functions of the wandering nerve include the senses of the skin, muscles, and internal organs. The condition of the wandering nerve — the vagal tone — especially affects the internal organs: like a fuse ready to capture the increase in cortisol (primary stress hormone) or adrenaline (inflammation accelerants) in the body. When a hazard is detected, the wandering nerve transmits a signal to the brain to send anti-inflammatory agents (acetylcholine) to reduce inflammation.
The wandering nerve is the main instinctive mechanism of fear and stress management. It controls the body’s relaxation and digestion functions. It is the engine of the parasympathetic nervous system, so a good vagal tone leads to a balanced body system and greater stress resistance. Stimulation of the wandering nerve can activate the body’s balancing capabilities. It is said that people with a higher vagal tone are likely to be mentally and physically healthier.
Vagal tone is related to the ability to control emotions and breathing. Usually, people inhale and exhale 9–24 times per minute. This rate can change in a stressful situation, during exercise, or due to breathing habits. Activation of the vagal tone triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, slows the heartrate, and evokes a feeling of calm. Why is this important? The wandering nerve is responsible for slowing the heartbeat during exhalation. Slow breathing sends a signal to the parasympathetic nervous system that all is well. Exhalation releases acetylcholine and synchronizes heart rate — this is most effectively achieved with 6 inhalations and exhalations per minute. The goal of mindful breathing is to minimize the frequency of inhalations and exhalations per minute and to balance heart rate and blood pressure. This is just one of the self-help methods to stimulate the wandering nerve. We will share many more.
Train your nerve! How?
The wandering nerve tone is supported by a certain stimulation — these are various techniques that stimulate the wandering nerve. One of the first discoveries dates back to 1880 when a manual wandering nerve massage by pressing the carotid artery in the neck area was discovered. Much later, in 1930–1940,electrical stimulation studies were started and finally, in 1997 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) has approved an electrical wandering nerve stimulation device for the treatment of epilepsy. In 2005 its effect on the treatment of depression was discovered.
In today’s medicine, the wandering nerve can be stimulated with a neurosurgery implanted electrical stimulator (a flat, round, 4 cm-sized, 10–13 mm thick metal disk) that sends electrical impulses to the left side wandering nerve. For some, stimulation of this nerve is an opportunity to control epileptic seizures. Although there are opinions that there is a possibility to stimulate the wandering nerve non-invasively, through the skin, there is not enough evidence for its clinical application.
Let’s focus on preventive self-help techniques to positively stimulate the wandering nerve. By stimulating this nerve, you can achieve a better physical and emotional response to stress and maintain a feeling of well-being. At the same time, emotions of love, gratitude, happiness arise; our memory and ability to learn new things improve, etc. It seems incredible that the activity of this important mechanism can be regulated by extremely simple actions: mindful breathing, meditation, hugs, interactions, singing… How is this possible?
Have you noticed that in anticipation of any form of stress, we tend to hold our breath, which activates the fight-or-flight reaction, increases the feeling of pain, anxiety, fear? How to relax? The wandering nerve directly controls the exhalation, which triggers a relaxation reaction. Thus, one of the most commonly practiced ways to stimulate our natural tranquilizer — the wandering nerve — is mindful breathing exercises, meditation.
The result of the 6 inhalations per minute already discussed can be achieved using the diaphragm muscles: when inhaling, try to expand the abdomen, chest, and exhale — as slowly as possible. Some experts recommend breathing only through the nose. Increasing the duration of exhalation stimulates the wandering nerve and triggers the production of acetylcholine (which creates a feeling of relaxation). Practicing slow, controlled breathing exercises improves the tone of the wandering nerve, relaxes muscles, eliminates anxiety, increases the supply of oxygen (this helps to produce endorphins — hormones of well-being), helps to control blood pressure, heart rate, strengthens the immune system. The focus on breathing is based on meditation practices, yoga, tai chi, and other therapeutic benefits.
2. Stimulation of the throat muscles
Other ways of triggering the wandering nerve are also related to breathing and stimulation of certain points in the body. Water gargling, as well as singing, chanting, physiologically activates the vocal cords, vibrates the muscle fibers in the throat — those are activities that stimulate the wandering nerve. Daily practice of these activities can improve vagal tone, heart rate variability.
3. Position: heart above head
The parasympathetic nervous system is also activated by certain body positions. For example, when the pelvis and heart area are above the head: this is how the pressure sensors — baroreceptors — in the carotid artery of the neck are stimulated. They transmit information directly to the wandering nerve, which constricts blood vessels and slows breathing. Lying and sleeping on the right side also activates the wandering nerve.
4. Laughter and hugs
It has been proven years ago that laughter, positive thoughts, social connections positively stimulate the wandering nerve, elevate the mood, provide a joyful, calm feeling. Hugs work similarly — touching skin increases the tone of the wandering nerve, stimulates the release of oxytocin and reduces the amount of cortisol, regulates heart rate and blood pressure. Pleasant touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, areas that are involved in reward and decision making.
Increased salivation in the mouth also triggers a relaxing wandering nerve response. When the mouth is filled with saliva and the tongue is immersed in it, the body finds itself in a mode of the parasympathetic nervous system. The calmer the mind, the deeper the relaxation, the easier it is to stimulate salivation. When the mouth can produce a lot of salivae, it is a sign that the wandering nerve is positively stimulated.
The exercise to trigger salivation: sit on a chair, relax, lean back and imagine a juicy lemon; if you do not produce enough saliva, pour some warm water into your mouth; immerse the tongue in such a warm bath and remain in this mode for as long as possible. When the tongue relaxes, the arms, legs, hips, neck, the head will relax as well.
6. Ice water
Studies have shown that cold water is a simple and effective way to instantly accelerate the response of the parasympathetic nervous system: reduce heartrate, intestinal activity, activate the immune system. Coldwater therapy is especially suitable after sports, during which the sympathetic nervous system is active. However, you need to get used to the cold water gradually, starting with the immersion of the face. This practice is not recommended for people with heart disease.
7. Massage techniques
Massaging certain parts of the body also stimulates the wandering nerve. For example, the carotid artery in the neck, the clavicle area that contains the wandering nerve sensitive points, the jaw, the area behind the ears, the feet, and so on. With the help of specialists, the wandering nerve can be stimulated during pulsed electromagnetic field therapy. Traditional acupuncture can also stimulate the wandering nerve, especially in the ear area. However, these procedures should only be performed after consulting with a doctor and only under the supervision of qualified professionals.
8. Nutritional elements
The digestion of food and the appetite depends on the wandering nerve impulses to and from the brain. The wandering nerve activity is also intensified by certain eating habits. Intermittent starvation and calorie reduction are thought to increase heart rate variability: intermittent starvation slows down metabolism and stimulates wandering nerve activity. The good gut bacteria — probiotics and prebiotics — help to create molecules that are transmitted to the brain through the wandering nerve and prevent inflammation in the body. Good bacteria can also create neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Healthy bacteria are found in fermented foods. Fatty acids found in seafood reduce heart rate, increase heart rate variability. Fibre-rich foods slow down intestinal function and provide satiety (feeling of fullness).