Your vagus nerve is a wiggly, squiggly, branching nerve connecting most of your major organs between your brain and your colon. Imagine it like a system of roots or cables sending messages throughout your body. It is the longest nerve in your body, and technically it comes as a pair of two vagus nerves - one for the right side of your body and one for the left. It wanders to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way.
It’s called “vagus” because it wanders, like a vagrant, among your organs. The word vagus meaning wandering in Latin.
So, why is this wandering nerve so important?
The vagus nerve has been talked about a lot in recent years. It’s been described as many things, but especially being largely responsible for your mind-body connection. Acting as a mediator between thinking and feeling. I’ve heard it beautifully interpreted by one wellbeing journalist as a “physical manifestation of the soul”. Also “When people say ‘trust your gut,’” as one Psychology Today writer put it several years ago, “they really mean ‘trust your vagus nerve.’”
The vagus nerve is command central for the function of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow you down, to relax you and to calm you. It uses neurotransmitters to literally lower your heart rate, your blood pressure, and helps your heart and other organs to slow down.
At the other end of the scale, when your vagus nerve disengages, your body goes into anxiety disarray. A racing heart, dizziness, dry mouth, stomach pains and light-headedness start to activate.
How can I keep my vagus nerve activated and healthy?
The health of our vagus nerve has been referred to on a tonal index. A higher vagal tone index is linked to good physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, low mood, lethargy and heart issues.
Once you start to understand the incredible power of your vagus nerve, next you can begin to practice ways to strengthen it to keep you calm and collected - even in times of distress.
The more things you do things to stimulate it, such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga, the more you can banish the effects of your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight mode). Dr Lucy Norcliffe-Kaufmann is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology at New York University. She noted that the ideal, most calming way to breathe is six times a minute: five seconds in, five seconds out.
Other activities that are believed to improve vagal tone include singing, humming and laughing. Massage therapy and Acupuncture are also thought to naturally stimulate the vagus nerve with positive effects.
Finally, try starting your day by splashing yourself in the face with cold water or having a cold rinse in the shower before you get out. Cold exposure is thought to have great benefits in lowering your sympathetic nervous system and activating your vagus nerve. Start with a cold rinse of 10 seconds and work your way up to longer periods from there on…