Viva Las Vagus: The Vagus Nerve

Tree in winter.

Mind-Body Connection

Anyone who practises yoga can have no doubt about the power of the mind-body connection. Even non-yogis know that a few deep breaths can calm us if we’re stressed or in an anxious state. But did you know that just one nerve – the vagus nerve – is largely responsible for this complex symbiotic relationship?

As part of the autonomic nervous system which controls the things the body does automatically, the vagus nerve – which connects the brain stem to nearly all major organs in the body – monitors information from our senses to gauge threat levels.

You can think of the vagus nerve as a two-way radio communication system helping you stay in touch with your sensations and emotions: it is behind your gut instinct, the knot in your throat and the butterflies in your stomach.

Stress

When the vagus nerve senses any threat it activates the sympathetic nervous system responsible for our adrenaline and cortisol-fuelled “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline surges through the body making the heart beat faster, expanding the air passages of the lungs and altering the body’s metabolism. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, curbs the immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes – all non-essential in a fight or flight situation.

It’s been a vital part of the toolkit for human survival since we first evolved.

Stress, as a by-product of a body being in fight-or-flight mode, is a helpful short-lived response. These days stress is primarily psychological – we’re never actually going to be attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger – but our physical response to it remains the same. And in our constantly over-stimulated society, stress levels – induced by anything from noisy neighbours to exam stresses to the constant demands of social media – are on the rise.

As a result, stress has even been labelled “public health enemy no. 1“.

Cortisol

Part and parcel of your body preparing to face (or flee) the threat it senses is that it releases a load of cortisol. One of the three stress hormones, it enables your body to tap into protein stored in the liver and give your body an energy boost.

And although cortisol reduces inflammation in the short term, chronic stress causes cortisol levels to keep rising and, over time, become less effective in managing inflammation in the body. Eventually inflammation becomes unregulated and, as inflammation is closely linked to your immune system, you can be susceptible to all sorts of physical and mental health issues. Problems ranging from mental health and anxiety issues to heart disease, immune system-related health problems, obesity, Alzheimer’s and Type 2 Diabetes have all been linked to excess levels of cortisol in your body.

Stimulating the vagus nerve

Regulation of the vagus nerve – or vagal toning as it is sometimes referred to – can have a profound and immediate effect on the body, as taking those deep breaths when stressed prove.  As the vagus nerve controls heart rate and blood pressure, regulating it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure.

Less apparent but equally important effects include helping with digestive issues. Vagal toning increases stomach acidity and digestive juice secretion, releasing bile in the gallbladder and controlling blood glucose levels in the liver and pancreas.

This is what’s known as the “rest-and-digest” response system (as opposed to “fight-or-flight”).

Things that work

Sound complicated? It isn’t. The good news is that if you practise yoga, most likely you’ll be doing all of this on a regular basis. A really effective way of stimulating the vagus nerve is through adopting a regular and deep breathing pattern – which yogis do all the time. Diaphragmatic breathing will stimulate the nerve, as will chanting or practising Brahmari (humming or bee breath). Another really easy way is to splash cold water on your face (or use a washcloth): the vagus nerve responds to the cold by activating the mammalian dive reflex which, in an effort to conserve oxygen, slows your heart rate.

So while we know that yoga relaxes you, the physiological effect of it is that by practising it you lower your heart rate and reduce cortisol levels. Doing so on a regular basis will reduce your risk of heart disease and help keep stress levels in balance – which I’m sure we all agree is a Very Good Thing.

This post is an edited version of an article that appears in this month’s Om Yoga & Lifestyle magazine. 

Signed by: Monika.

Share:

  1. Catarina on 8 April 2018 at 3:01 pm

    Interesting information. Having practised yoga for about twenty years most likely I’m stimulating the vague nerve.

    • Monika Maurer on 8 April 2018 at 7:36 pm

      And without even knowing it too! Yoga is the gift that keeps on giving…. Thanks for your comment, Catarina.

  2. Phoenicia on 9 April 2018 at 7:32 am

    I do not practice yoga and instead walk, jog and do squats which places immense pressure on my thighs. However I need to tone up my thighs so endure it!

    • Monika Maurer on 9 April 2018 at 9:04 am

      All those are great things to be doing Phoenicia, but sadly won’t regulate your vagus nerve. If yoga doesn’t appeal then how about the cold flannel trick? It will work wonders for your skin as well!

  3. Doreen Pendgracs on 10 April 2018 at 3:21 am

    Thx for this fascinating post on the vagus nerve. I’ve not previously heard of it. I haven’t had the opportunity to include yoga in my life, but am expecting a lot of change this year, so who knows?

    • Monika Maurer on 10 April 2018 at 7:42 am

      Thanks for your comment Doreen. I may be biased but I do hope you get to find a yoga class you enjoy and can continue with. It will bring so many benefits. And in the meantime, the cold washcloth on the face is the easiest trick in regulating your vagus nerve and getting your body to slow down. Who’d have thought?

  4. Ramona McKean on 11 April 2018 at 12:07 am

    Monika, I learned awhile back about the wonderfully critical vagus nerve. Thank you for connecting its regulation/toning with yoga. I do yoga but not regularly. I should. Two questions:
    How much time daily would you recommend for people who want to just do the deep breathing practice?
    What is the “cold flannel trick”?
    And, I just have to say, your choice of image is perfect to suggest the human nervous system. The trunk and that which is the main branch would be the vagus nerve, yes?

    • Monika Maurer on 11 April 2018 at 3:45 pm

      Hi Ramona, welcome to the site and thank you so much for your comments! How much time I would recommend for the deep breathing? Annoyingly, it’s different for everyone. With a regular practice, your vagus nerve becomes more responsive and so it takes less time to calm your nervous system if you do it regularly than if you only do it once in a while. I would imagine five minutes a day would be more adequate, but if you feel particularly stressed perhaps take a minute or two out wherever you are for a few rounds of diaphragmatic breathing. And well spotted regarding the “cold flannel” trick – this was edited out of the longer piece that was originally published in print form, so I have updated this post. By plunging your face in cold water the vagus nerve activates your mammalian dive reflex which slows your heart rate to conserve oxygen. I’m planning to publish an updated post with further tips on how to regulate your vagus nerve soon. Do feel free to either sign up to my email so you’ll be notified when it’s published or check back in a couple of weeks’ time if you’re interested in finding out more!

  5. Debra Yearwood on 11 April 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Great information. I used to practice yoga, but I never knew about the vagus nerve, this explains so much. Perhaps its time to get back to yoga. 🙂 I look forward to reading more from you in future posts on how to regulate the vagus nerve.

    • Monika Maurer on 11 April 2018 at 9:18 pm

      Great stuff Debra. To be honest, I didn’t know about the vagus nerve until recently, either. I’m planning another post on it soon, so watch this space!

  6. Jeannette Paladino on 14 April 2018 at 2:05 am

    I don’t practice yoga. But your post made think that maybe the reason we splash cold water on our faces when we get up in the morning is because it not only makes us feel better but gets us ready for any of the day’s challenges!

    • Monika Maurer on 14 April 2018 at 7:53 am

      Hi Jeanette. Yes, not everybody practises yoga, but I bet most of us are subject to stress in our lives now and then. Check back in a couple of weeks time – I’ll be posting more tips on how to regulate the vagus nerve that don’t include yoga!

Leave a Comment





Writer, blogger, mother, wife, wannabe yogi.
Good intentions, zero willpower.

Signed by: Monika Maurer

Let's Connect

Subscribe

Follow me on Instagram