Written By Dr. Brian A. Magna, DPT, ATC
In physical therapy, we often talk about the musculoskeletal system and how it relates to function and pain. Over the last few years, a great deal of research has gone into the effects of stress on the body and how pain and decreased function is enhanced when our bodies experience anxiety. One of the key structures in our bodies which we don’t pay enough attention to on a personal level is the vagus nerve. What and where is that you ask?
The vagus nerve is actually the tenth of our twelve cranial nerves and is responsible for regulation of internal organ function. Each of our cranial nerves is really a pair of nerves with one on each side of our body. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our bodies and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract and runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. A 2014 study by Robert Howland, MD noted that vagus nerve stimulation by internal or external TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) had positive effects for reduction of symptoms associated with epilepsy, depression and heart failure. Other conditions possibly affected by the vagus nerve include stress, anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, inflammation and digestion.
So why now? Why have so many individuals not heard of this nerve and its effects on our bodily functions as a whole? It is my belief that since society appears to be turning to a much more holistic approach in medicine and health, we are finally beginning to understand the bodily connection approach to our well-being while utilizing an evidence-based approach.
Studies show that the vagus nerve is essential for our mental well-being and physical health. This is because when we are functioning from a parasympathetic 'point of view' (using nerves arising from the brain and the lower end of the spinal cord) we are able to repair, digest and assimilate nutrients in our food properly. More studies demonstrate that stimulating the vagus nerve ourselves can be essential to a healthy life.
Common and simple ways to stimulate the vagus nerve are:
1. Cold Exposure (to activate cholinergic neurons) Cholinergic neurons provide the primary source of acetylcholine to the cerebral cortex which helps contract smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels, increases bodily secretions and slows heart rate. Cold showers are an easy way to integrate this into your life.
Studies have shown that drinking chilled water not only decreases the heart rate but also stimulates the vagus nerve. As the vagus nerve is directly affected by the low temperature of water, the heart rate eventually slows down.
2. Deep and Slow Breathing
Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute).Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale. Exhale longer than you inhale.
3. Humming & Singing
Since the vagus nerve is attached to the vocal chords and muscles around them, humming and singing is a great way to stimulate the nerve.
To improve gut and digestive function
Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The EPA and DHA found in fish oil are capable of increasing heart rate variability as well as lowering heart rate which helps to activate the vagus nerve.
Aerobic exercise stimulate your vagus nerve and lower stress responses associated with "fight-or-flight" mechanisms.
You can manually stimulate the vagus nerve by massaging certain areas of the body. A neck massage along the carotid sinus, the right side of your throat, stimulates the vagus nerve. Foot massage can also increase vagal modulation, as well as help lower blood pressure.
9. Socializing & Laughing
Laughter is a super easy thing to do.... "The vagus nerve activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the 'rest and digest' part of your nervous system, which is the opposite of the 'fight or flight' part of your nervous system so, essentially, you're telling your body to relax when you laugh
Who would have thought the vagus nerve would have so many functions and could be positively influenced by each of us in so many ways? Why aren’t we taught about this great nerve to help us with our health? It’s never too late to make a difference.
We Have Some Nerve…don’t we?