What is the vagus nerve? Otherwise know as the wandering nerve, it is the longest nerve in the human body and influences things like speaking, heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, respiration and digestion. The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem and extends down through the neck, into the chest and abdomen. It is also the single most influential nerve in our parasympathetic system containing both sensory and motor fibers and is known to many as the 10th cranial nerve. You can learn more about spinal anatomy here.
Sympathetic versus Parasympathetic Responses
When you feel stressed have you ever noticed how your body responds? When stressed, you are more likely to have dilated eyes, sweaty palms or a racing heart. This is because you are in a state of sympathetic stimulation or the fight/flight state.
The opposite to this state is guided more by the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system (or brake pedal) is the part of our nervous system that takes care of rest and digestion (one of the components of our autonomic nervous system). The parasympathetic system’s main function is to conserve energy and to regulate bodily functions such as respiration, digestion and urination. It also works to constrict pupils, stimulate flow of saliva, slows your heartbeat, stimulates bile secretion and contracts the bladder. It is the part of our nervous system that helps us to heal and repair.
Long story short – when you think of the vagus nerve, think about this as the brake pedal because it is important in slowing things down or how our bodies experience rest and digestion – making it very important.
High vagal tone is associated with:
- Better blood sugar regulation
- Reduce risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease
- Reduction in migraines
- Increased emotional stability, resiliency and longevity
Low vagal tone is associated with:
- Mood instability
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chronic inflammation
- Cardiovascular disease
Now that you understand a little more about what the vagus nerve is, where it is located and what can happen when you have high or low vagal tone. But what can you do to help activate your vagus nerve?
4 ways to activate your vagus nerve:
- Chiropractic Care – Chiropractic care can stimulate the vagus nerve and increases vagal tone. When you use Chiropractic on a consistent basis, it engages your body’s ability to rest and repair.
- Slow rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing – Intentionally trying to slow your breathing (down to 6 breathes per minute, instead of the regular 10-14 breaths per minute) can work to engage your vagus nerve more. Be sure that your belly is expanding as well when you breath in.
- Cultivate healthy gut flora – Having good gut bacteria help to improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve.
- Learn to meditate and do it frequently – This is a great way to increase mindfulness and positivity in your life but it also has great benefits to the brain by engaging the vagus nerve and decreasing the fight or flight response.