Here’s How The Vagus Nerve Affects Your Mind And Body
- 6 mins read
- Written by: Reshma Pathare
The Vagus nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves, i.e. the nerves that connect your brain to the rest of your body. It passes through the face and thorax and extends from the brain to the abdomen. The Vagus also branches out to the heart, the oesophagus, and the lungs. It is also known as the “wanderer nerve” because of its long path through the body. Several abdominal organs and large portions of the digestive tract are innervated by the Vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve and the Gut-Brain Axis
From the digestive system and organs to the brain, the Vagus nerve transmits a wide range of signals. It is the fastest and most direct way for gut microbiota to influence the brain.
There have been several studies examining the Vagus nerve’s role in hunger, satiety, stress responses, as well as its role in regulating inflammation.[Ri2] Vagal tone is also known to play a role in determining food intake and weight gain. Studies have shown that gut bacteria can also influence vagal-mediated effects. Specific strains of bacteria use Vagus nerve signaling to communicate with the brain and to affect behaviour.
The Vagus Nerve and Mental Health
The Vagus nerve carries messages from your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including your gut, heart, and lungs. Among other things, it affects your breathing, digestive function, and heart rate, all of which can greatly influence your mental health. The stimulation of vagal afferent fibres in the gut has profound effects on the brain which are key to the development of mood and anxiety disorders. Gut bacteria can positively affect mood and anxiety, partly by affecting the activity of the Vagus nerve.
How the Vagus Nerve Affects Immunity
Your Vagus nerve is an important part of your parasympathetic nervous system. If the parasympathetic nervous system is not functioning properly, the heart rate and breathing rate can remain elevated and inflammation can persist and become chronic. As the Vagus nerve helps reduce stress and lower elevated heart and breathing rates, it plays a major role in ensuring that all other systems of your body are working effectively, including your immune system. Furthermore, the Vagus nerve prevents unnecessary inflammation and helps in resetting the immune system so that it doesn’t overreact and over respond. In the absence of a healthy and functioning Vagus nerve, your immune system cannot reset itself and this can lead to the usual list of harmful diseases associated with chronic inflammation.
Mind Your Vagal Tone
The Vagus nerve activity is represented by vagal tone, one of your body’s internal biological processes. You must pay close attention to the “tone” of your Vagus nerve. By increasing vagal tone, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning that your body can relax faster after stress.
Researchers have found that vagal tone can even be passed from mother to child. Mothers who experience depression, anxiety, or anger during pregnancy have reduced vagal activity. As a result, the newborn also has low vagal activity and lower levels of serotonin and dopamine.
You can stimulate your Vagus nerve to increase your vagal tone if it’s low. By doing so, you will be able to better address the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental health. The Vagus nerve also regulates stress responses and can be influenced by breathing, its stimulation through meditation and yoga may contribute to resilience as well as a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
How to stimulate your vagal tone
- Cold Exposure: The Vagus nerve and Vagus nerve pathways are activated by acute cold exposure. Next time you take a shower, finish it with at least 30 seconds of cold water.
- Deep and slow breathing: This has been shown to lower anxiety and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The best way to relieve stress is to take about six deep breaths in a minute from your diaphragm.
- Chanting and humming: The Vagus nerve regulates the vocal cords and the muscles at the back of the throat. These muscles can be activated and stimulated by chanting, singing, and gargling.
- Probiotics: The bacteria in your gut are known to affect the Vagus nerve, which in turn affects your brain function. A study with animals treated with Lactobacillus Rhamnosus found positive effects on the brain, a decline in stress hormones, and reduced depression and anxiety-like behaviour. Furthermore, researchers found that the Vagus nerve facilitated these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain.
- Meditation: Mediation increases vagal tone, positive emotions, and self-acceptance. Studies suggest that meditation decreases stress and enhances vagal activity.
- Laughter: Laughter and socializing reduce your body’s main stress hormone. This is likely accomplished by stimulating the Vagus nerve. Studies have shown that positive social connections can alter your body’s vagal tone.