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The Mighty Vagus: Your Nerve Superhighway to Health
IF Insider No. 79
In our last issue (IF Insider No. 78) we looked at the vital importance of social interaction on your health and paid some special attention to our introverted readers. Today, we’re going to look at the vagus nerve, and how you can incorporate some easy-to-use stimulation techniques that can really make a difference in how you feel.
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Your Health's Best Friend: Understanding and Engaging the Vagus Nerve
The vagus is known in Latin as the ‘wanderer’ as it branches in the skull into two nerves, one on each side, and then travels throughout the body, sending its fibers to the throat, heart, lungs, stomach, and digestive system. Because the parasympathetic system is associated with relaxation, the vagus promotes a reduction in heart rate, decrease in blood pressure, decreased sweat gland activity, and increase in digestion.
At rest, both systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic, discharge at a low level. The two systems balance each other, exchanging dominance as the situation requires but maintaining equilibrium as dominance shifts.
There are a few FDA-approved medical vagus nerve stimulators, one that treats epilepsy, others that treat depression, and another that is to be used with rehabilitation when recovering from a stroke. The stimulation helps create new pathways in the brain and can help the person who has suffered a stroke regain function.
These are medical devices and are invasive, as they are surgically implanted under the skin of the chest where a wire is threaded underneath the skin that connects the device to the patient’s left vagus nerve. When the device is turned on electrical signals travel along the left vagus nerve to the brainstem, which then affects the brain. The reason the right vagus nerve isn't usually used is because it’s more likely to affect the function of the heart.
There are a few, FDA-approved non-invasive vagus nerve stimulators on the market as well, to treat cluster headaches and migraines. This is a device that is held against the skin of the neck and stimulates the vagus, blocking pain signals and is used to prevent and relieve head pain.
Here are five totally non-invasive ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, with the purchase of a device not necessary! As you might guess, these have not been the object of too much scientific scrutiny, as the profit motive is just not there.
The benefits of stimulating your vagus nerve in a non-invasive way include:
Regulating your emotions, reducing blood pressure, lowering your heart rate and reducing inflammation. These non-invasive ways might also help with migraines, depression, and other conditions treated with the invasive ways, it’s just that has not been studied.
One of the simplest ways to stimulate your vagus nerve is with breathing.
Breathing is one of the few bodily responses that is for the most part, involuntary and automatic but it is also able to be brought under your conscious control. So it acts as a sort of bridge between the unconscious, autonomic nervous system and the conscious, voluntary nervous system.
There are 3 points to keep in mind when using the breath to stimulate your vagus nerve: breathe slowly (but not so slowly that you become uncomfortable), second, breathe from your belly, like babies naturally do, meaning as you inhale you allow your belly to expand and then contract it as you breathe out, this moves the diaphragm which the vagus nerve runs through, and third you want to breathe out a bit longer than you are breathing in. A few minutes of breathing this way can noticeably trigger a relaxation response powered by your vagus nerve.
The next way you can stimulate your vagus nerve is with sound, such as humming, singing, chanting, laughter, or even gargling, as your vagus nerve has branches that go to your vocal cords. There are also those who believe that simply listening to some types of music as well as chanting can activate your vagus nerve. Nearly all spiritual and religious traditions have chanting as part of their cultures.
Here is a one-hour collection of Eastern Orthodox Chants titled somewhat weirdly, 1 Hour of Chad Orthodox Chants to Redeem Your Soul and we believe the language is Albanian.
There is also Gregorian Chant which is known to slow the heartbeat and promote deep relaxation. Another example is an hour of Gregorian chant paired with a tone at 432HZ known as the Solfeggio) or the Earth Frequency as it’s also called:
It appears this tone was produced using binaural beats, meaning there is a tone embedded in the sounds you hear in one ear and another tone of a different frequency embedded in the sounds you hear in the other ear. When you listen to them together, using headphones, this third tone, 432Hz, is produced by your brain.
There is mounting evidence that listening to this frequency can help to relieve anxiety and stress, with one study looking at ER nurses during the COVID pandemic, another finding improved sleep in patients with spinal cord injuries and another documenting a decrease in heart rate. These were all double-blind pilot studies.
And here is Mongolian throat singing:
And Tibetan singing bowls Sound Meditation with Peter Hess Tibetan Singing Bowls ASMR:
After breathing and sound, next up is foot massage, which you can either do yourself or by another person. This method is also backed up by a study by Chinese researchers who showed that foot massage decreased blood pressure and heart rate in coronary artery disease patients
And the 4th and final one, although most folks don’t find it as enjoyable as some of the others, is immersing your face in cold water or taking a cold shower. If you want to dunk your face in very cold water, be sure to immerse your forehead, eyes, and at least 2/3 of both cheeks into the water.
This elicits the vagus nerve, decreases heart rate, stimulates the intestines, and turns on the immune system. If you have any kind of heart condition, you should not do this without consulting your physician and you should never do this sitting down at a table if you are alone, as if your heart rate dropped too low you could get dizzy and even worse pass out with your face in the water.
The fifth and final way that I want to present to stimulate the vagus nerve is through doing qigong.
Below, is Paul Cavel, Ellen’s qigong teacher, who is based in London. He has studied qigong, as well as tai chi, the I ching, and other Eastern arts since he was a young man, and has been teaching since 1995. Paul practices the Water Method, which emphasizes slow, circular, meditative movements that are designed to move qi as well as bodily fluids such as blood and interstitial fluid, and through consistent practice, is designed to heal the body and mind. Unlike Western exercise, this method of qigong is meant to steadily build up your body’s store of energy reserves over time and with continued practice.
Here is a video of Paul demonstrating the moves in a tai chi sequence known as the Wu style short form. This was filmed some 12 or 13 years ago and Paul is even more refined in his practice now, but this will give you a sense of the slow, deliberate, meditative, focused but relaxed movement and alignment that students aspire to. At first, it’s difficult to believe this was not filmed in slow motion, but this is in real-time. He is extremely accomplished, so try to get a sense of how his whole body seems to flow all at once.
To cap it off, there are more and more over-the-counter devices of various kinds that claim to stimulate the vagus nerve, including the Apollo Neuro, the Sensate, Pulsetto, and Xen devices.
Regularly stimulating your vagus nerve by doing one or more of these five non-invasive methods explained above, or by choosing to use a device, can help to regulate your emotions, reduce blood pressure, lower your heart rate, and reduce bodily inflammation.
Do you engage in any practices for vagal nerve stimulation? If so, we would love to hear about your experience in the comments!
Why It Matters
“A healthy vagus nerve is the key to a regulated nervous system.”
~ Jessica McGuire - Physiotherapist and the founder of the Nervous System School.
What We Are Reading 📚
Denise - I’m periodically dipping into Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I'd Known Earlier by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine and one of three people behind the weekly newsletter, Recomendo.
Ellen - I am a big fan of Mel Robbins and her podcast. Recently Mel featured a psychologist and Harvard professor on her show by the name of Dr. Luana Marques. I was completely fascinated by her story and this interview, so much so that I got her book, Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power.
I don’t suffer from chronic anxiety, but like nearly everyone, I can get anxious when I have a big task to complete or a big goal to accomplish. Here is Dr. Marques in her appearance on the Mel Robbins podcast. I think you will enjoy listening to what she has to say:
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