Your Body's Information Superhighway...
We literally have five lanes of traffic zipping along inside our body. Four lanes are delivering information from our body to our brain and one lane is moving information from our brain to our body. What do we call this superhighway? The vagus nerve.
What is currently known about the vagus nerve?
It manages the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Specifically it provides 75% of all the outflow messages to the body to shift into relaxation mode (parasympathetic nervous system dominance).
80% of the vagus nerve’s fibers deliver information from the gut (enteric nervous system) to the brain.
Its the release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve that keeps us breathing.
It releases anti-inflammatory signals from the brain to the body. “In 2011, researchers at the University of Amsterdam implanted vagus nerve stimulators into 8 patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis. After 42 days of vagus stimulation—one to four minutes per day—most patients experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms and two of them had complete remission.”
It has control over heart rates and blood pressure. There are studies underway to investigate the effects of vagus stimulation in patients with heart failure and atrial fibrillation.
Its electrical stimulation is an effective treatment for chronic depression. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve through a surgically implanted device has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a therapy for patients who don’t get relief from other treatments.
It is essential to resilience. Remember the vagus nerve delivers information from the gut to the brain but the vagus nerve also relays information from the brain back to the gut. It’s this feedback loop that we refer to as our “gut instinct”. A group of Swiss researchers wondered what would happen if this feedback loop was interrupted. They studied rats where the brain was able to send signals to the gut but the brain wasn’t able to receive information from the gut. The results – the rats couldn’t overcome their fear even when the danger was no longer present.
What is also interesting is that in the same Swiss study where the rats had their information highway cut off from the gut to the brain it took them significantly longer to “re-associate the previously dangerous environment with the new, safe and neutral situation. This shows that the vagus nerve facilitates learning and re-wiring. These new findings of the vagus nerve offer exciting possibilities for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Stimulation of the vagus nerve might speed up the process by which people with PTSD can learn to re-associate a non-threatening stimulus which trigger anxiety with a neutral and non-traumatic experience.”
Vagus nerve stimulation can help relieve cluster headaches. A company in NJ makes a device that stimulates the vagus nerve when it is placed on the throat. The device was designed to relieve asthma symptoms but during testing patients said that it relieved their headaches. Now electroCore is investigating the use of its device to treat chronic cluster headaches.
While stimulation of the vagus nerve to treat various symptoms is interesting we know that everything in the body is connected. So if we just zap the vagus nerve how does that affect other functions in the body? “Some scientists compare it to turning on the light in one room in a house, which can simultaneously turn on the light in other rooms as well without us ever knowing about it."
How can we improve our vagal nerve tone without resorting to external stimulation? By practicing deep breathing. Breathing that fills the lower lungs and moves the diaphragm. As you deep breathe you want to balance your inhale and your exhale to find a steady flow and breathing pattern. This deep balanced breathing should feel calming. This is called resonance breathing and it is when your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems come into balance. Resonance is the scientific word for when your heart rate, heart rate variability (measure of the variation in time between each heart beat), blood pressure, and brainwave function come into coherent frequency.
We practice this type of breathing during our yoga asana practice and during meditation. You can also just sit and breathe in one of these patterns. If you are just beginning try 5 min several times a day. Also, use this deep breathing pattern when you feel stressed or anxious.
Inhale 4 seconds, exhale 6 seconds (count to yourself 1 1,000, 2 1,000, 3 1,000, etc.)
Inhale 5 seconds, exhale 5 seconds
Inhale 6 seconds, exhale 6 seconds
Inhale 5 seconds, exhale 7 seconds
Amsterdam study: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/hacking-the-nervous-syste_n_7469526
Treatment for depression: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/vagus-nerve-stimulation-in-chronic-treatmentresistant-depression/C4C5073ED6D265283D40F273F1944E25