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  • Writer's picturejennifervallens

Flexing Your Vagus Nerve

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Have you ever wondered why people sing in the shower or whistle while they work? Did it ever occur to you that humming and chanting is a way to reduce stress?

Well I am about to tell you all about THE LONG AND WINDING ……NERVE…

What the Nerve? You've heard of our nervous system, right. Well our nervous system is what sends messages from our brain to the rest of our body. Part of this system is made up of two parts that keep our bodies in balance. They are the Sympathetic system, which prepares our body for stress related activities to defend against threat and our Parasympathetic system, which counteracts our stress response and brings our body back in balance. These are also knowns as fight or flight, and rest and digest. Both systems are necessary to keep us safe, healthy and alive.

When our Sympathetic system (fight or flight) is activated by a real or imagined threat, many of our organ functions temporarily stop working so that our senses are heightened and we can access our energy reserves to address the threat. Our eyes dilate, adrenaline pumps throughout our body to give us strength. Blood pumps to our large muscles to be able to fight or flee.

We have one main nerve called the Vagus Nerve. It is our 10th cranial nerve and runs from the base of our skull all the way to the bottom of our stomach. It is the longest nerve in the body. It is often referred as the “wandering nerve”. It is called this because it wanders all over the body reaching various organs.

When this nerve is stimulated, we send the message to turn ON our parasympathetic system. This signals the body to relax and calm down. The parasympathetic system communicates to our vital organs to return to normal and decreases our alertness, lowers our heartrate and turns our digestive system back on.

There are two ways to activate our parasympathetic nervous system and control the stress response. One is to convince our mind that there is no more threat and allow our brain to send that message to our body. The other is to circumvent the biological stress response. We can’t do this willfully, but we can do certain things to stimulate our Vagus nerve.

The Vagus nerve passes through our thorax and the back of our throat. When we practice deep diaphragmatic breathing, we are able to activate the Vagus nerve. In Yoga, we call this our Ujjayi breath. When we make that oceanic/darth vedar sound, we stimulate this nerve and turn on our parasympathetic system. This is WHY Ujjayi breath is calming.

The function of our central nervous system was critical for our survival in early times. Our bodies however do not know the difference between a threat that is real or one that is imagined. In modern times with our technical advances, our bodies are in a state of fight or flight every time a notification on our phones sound. We are in a heighten state of stress all day long.

Some people are able to easily switch from the fight or flight to the rest and digest systems, while others have a more difficult time regulating their bodies back in balance. The rate in which you can “bounce back" after a stressful encounter is determined by your Vagal tone.

The stronger your tone, the better you are able to relax your body and reduce stress levels and the more resilient you are.

Better Vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels which reduces your risk of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Good Vagal tone can help inhibit inflammation that keeps rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders in check and strengthens digestion. The better your tone, the better you are at decreasing depression and anxiety.

So how do we tone our Vagal nerve?

Besides mindfully controlling our breath; singing, humming, chanting and gargling can also tone our Vagus nerve. Relaxing the muscles in the face with a half smile helps. Yoga postures that include heart and throat openers help with Vagal tone. Other things include exposure to cold, increasing intake of omega fatty acids and taking probiotics. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat also can help stimulate this nerve.

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking after Yoga, we hit the Karaoke bar and work on our tunes....oh I mean our tones....

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