It sounds cliché, but it’s true: When it comes to our bodies, everything is connected. And we can attribute much of that connection to the vagus nerve. It’s one of the longest nerves in our bodies and it’s involved in numerous processes.
Consequently, the health of this nerve affects the well-being of other parts of our bodies — from gut health to mental health.
Keep reading to learn more about this important nerve — and how to keep it in tip-top shape.
What does the vagus nerve do?
The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves that link the brain with other areas of the body. Some send sensory information (such as smells, sights, tastes and sounds) to the brain, while others control the movement of muscles and the function of certain glands.
However, some are able to do both — and the vagus nerve is one of them.
The word “vagus” comes from the Latin term for wandering, which is fitting considering it’s “one of the longest nerves in the body,” explains Valerie Oula, Director of Vibrational Energy Healing at THE WELL. “It is the tenth cranial nerve — it extends from the brain, and runs through the neck and down to the digestive tract, touching many organs in between.”
Its main job is to relay sensory information and motor function cues to the brain to keep us alert, aware and moving. That means it has a hand in bodily responses such as heart rate, cardiovascular activity and reflex actions (think: coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting). Additionally, it provides taste sensation behind the tongue, increases and decreases alertness and influences sexual arousal — to name a few of its many functions.
“It’s also part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for breathing and digestion,” Oula adds. “The vagus nerve is considered to be a major component of the ‘gut-brain’ axis.”
Think of this like a highway of communication between your gut and your brain. The bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract can signal different messages to the brain — and experts believe these communications can impact behavioral cognitive functions like memory, learning and decision-making.
It provides taste sensation behind the tongue, increases and decreases alertness and influences sexual arousal —to name a few of its many functions.
“The communication between the brain and the GI tract is bidirectional and based on a complex communication system largely driven by the vagus nerve,” explains Jordan Crofton, FNP, Director of Patient Care at THE WELL. “Because this exchange is bidirectional, it means that not only can our gut microbiota influence the brain, but the inverse is also true.”
“While the importance of the gut-brain connection has been discussed for centuries, it's only within the past two decades that research has been able to show the mechanistic link between our gut microbiota and the brain,” says Crofton. “There has been an explosion of research on the role of the microbiome and brain communication via the vagus nerve and the enteric nervous system — and researchers agree that the importance of this connection cannot be understated.”
Recent studies even demonstrate this gut-brain relationship may be linked with conditions like depression and obesity.
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The vagus nerve holds the key to calm
In a broad sense, the vagus nerve protects us. “Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory says that the vagus nerve helps us to feel safe and secure in our bodies through emotional regulation, social connection and fear response,” Oula says.
“The state of your nervous system when dealing with a perceived threat impacts how you respond to that threat,” explains Monica Nastasi, LCSW, holistic psychotherapist and founder of Integrated Therapy BK. “The way we respond to perceived threats (both in our minds and in our bodies) is directly related to our mental health and well-being.”
Accessing our vagus nerve can engage our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps relax our body. “When our body is more relaxed, we are able to pause and evaluate our automatic thoughts that fuel anxiety,” Nastasi says. “When we are able to evaluate these thoughts, our body relaxes more. The feedback loop of the mind and body can work to our benefit in this way.”
What is “low vagal tone”?
Because the vagus nerve is involved in countless processes, it’s vital to keep it healthy. Oula says stress, poor diet and a lack of exercise can all hinder the vagus nerve and cause low vagal tone. “Low vagal tone is oftentimes associated with depression and digestive issues,” Oula says.
Other symptoms of a damaged vagus nerve include:
- Difficulty speaking
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of gag reflex
- Low blood pressure
- Slow heart rate
- Increased anxiety
How to Keep Your Vagus Nerve Healthy
One of the best ways to keep your vagus nerve healthy is to monitor it regularly. “A good way to test the health of your vagus nerve is to monitor heart rate variability,” Oula says. “Low HRV (and therefore low vagal tone) is an indicator that your body is stressed.”
If you’re suffering from low vagal tone, doctors may take medical action such as vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). It’s a medical procedure that can be done manually or through electrical pulses and has been used to treat a variety of conditions. Because of the proven effectiveness of VNS, The Food and Drug Administration has approved its use to treat epilepsy and mental illnesses. Research has also found that VNS can help with rapid cycling bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and Alzheimer's disease.
But there are also many preventative measures you can do in the comfort of your own home. Oula recommends gentle massages (like this one, aptly called the “vagus voyage”), loud gargling with water and long, deep breaths through the nose. “My favorite ways to promote healthy vagal tone are alternate nostril breathing, laughing, singing out loud, chanting mantras and meditating.”
Meditation and yoga are great choices because of their beneficial impacts on our breathing, adds Nastasi, who shares the following simple breathing exercise to engage the vagus nerve:
- Put your hands on your belly
- Take slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm, focusing on long exhales
- Inhale for four counts
- Hold for four counts
- Exhale for six counts
- Hold for two counts
- Repeat this six times
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Don’t fret if you’re not meditating every day though! There are other ways to naturally access your vagus nerve outside of yoga and meditation, says Nastasi. Social engagement, for example, affects both your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems positively. “When we get reassurance from others, our nervous system relaxes and we feel safer,” she explains.
“Lastly, research is showing that eating foods that benefit gut health can have a positive impact on anxiety by activating the vagus nerve,” explains Nastasi. All the more reason to pile your plate foods that support gut health — and ditch the ones that don’t!
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