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The Vagus Nerve & It's Superpowers 🧠
Your Vagus Nerve is one of the most powerful brain tools you have! (11 minute read)
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The Endocrine System & the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal (HPA) Axis
Vagal Nerve Stimulation
Training Your Vagus Nerve
Bonus Hack for the Vagus Nerve
Welcome back! This week we are talking about the Vagus Nerve! For those of you who don’t know what that is, that’s alright, you’re in the right place!
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve is one of your 12 Cranial Nerves. This means it’s directly connected to your brain.
The vast majority of the nerves that make up your Nervous System are not directly connected to the brain in this way.
Most of them run from your brain, down your spinal cord, and out into your body becoming the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) that we talked about in the Mind, Brain, Body blog.
That being said, the 12 Cranial Nerves are different and are how the brain interfaces with the outside world most directly.
A lot of the Cranial Nerves deal with our senses, like vision & smell, however, we also have Cranial nerves for, eye movement, sensory information in the face, and motor movements of the face and mouth!
The Vagus Nerve is one of the most important of all of our Cranial Nerves because when it’s activated, it turns on the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or our Rest & Digest mode.
This is our calm, cool, and collected state. When our Parasympathetic is active, we clean our bodies of stress hormones, our breathing gets deeper, our heart rate slows, our cells are able to grow, and our body gets to a state of peace!
The Vagus nerve is also the longest nerve in our body, starting at the center of our brain, and traveling all the way down to our digestive system. This is where it gets its nickname, “The Wandering Nerve.”
This nerve serves as the main connector of our Gut-Brain Axis, which connects our Central Nervous System (CNS) with our Enteric Nervous System (ENS) that governs our gut.
The ENS is not often talked about but is sometimes referred to as our “second brain” because it acts as its own Central Nervous System, has more nerves in it than our spine, and produces over 30 neurotransmitters & chemicals that can cross our blood-brain barrier!
In fact, some of the benefits we just talked about in relation to the Parasympathetic Nervous system are driven by the ENS & the gut.
The Vagus nerve is like a 2-way superhighway between our CNS & ENS which is what makes this nerve one of the most important, and well-studied pieces of our Nervous System!
What does it mean to have toned muscles? I’ll help you out, tone typically refers to the ability of the muscles to reflexively contract.
Vagal tone is very similar, however, it’s a nerve, not a muscle, so instead of contracting to move or lift something, Vagal tone means the nerve is firing and active.
As we just mentioned, when this nerve is active, it fires up your Parasympathetic Nervous System!
This system is part of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which is primarily working under our conscious awareness, hence the name “Autonomic.”
The Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System is what keeps our internal organs like the stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, lungs, pupils, heart, sweat, salivary, and digestive glands working while we’re busy doing other things.
Can you imagine having to tell your stomach to digest, or your lungs to breathe every second of the day? Thank God we have the Autonomic Nervous System!
The Vagus nerve is the actual nerve that is activating all of these things when the Parasympathetic side of our Autonomic Nervous System is online.
What about when it’s not on? To answer that, we need to look at the other half of the ANS, the Sympathetic Nervous System.
Sympathetic Nervous System
This is the infamous side of the ANS, that’s because it controls our Fight-Flight response, ie our stress response.
This system is responsible for keeping us alive, and it’s one of the oldest mechanisms we have to do so.
Being a human on Earth hasn’t always been all sunshine & rainbows. We arrived where we are today through the evolutionary battlefield of our past.
That meant you could get eaten at any moment, and being able to kill the attacker (fight) or run from it (flight) was a pretty important skill to develop.
That being said, the Sympathetic does the opposite of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
For example, when activated, it increases your heart rate, slows your digestion, tenses your muscles, increases your breathing rate, increases your blood pressure, releases stress chemicals into your blood, and tons more!
When this system is active, it also cuts off the connection to our Pre-Frontal Cortex so that we can act faster in danger.
However, this also means logical/rational thoughts are not present when the Sympathetic Nervous System is online.
All things that are awesome when running from a tiger, but not so great in today’s world.
We have less to run from, so we’ve created our own versions of tigers like work deadlines, cultural expectations, worries about money, the fear of other people’s opinions, anxiety, and the list goes on and on.
These things are the tigers of the 21st century, and they activate our primordial Fight-Flight system just the same.
You’ve probably heard this whole speel before, so no need to beat a dead horse, you’re here to find out what you can do about it which is where our new best friend, the Vagus nerve comes in!
The Endocrine System & HPA
Vagal tone, which again means how much the Vagus nerve is firing, can be trained.
Yes, you read that right. You can train your Vagus nerve to fire more often, and more effectively.
By training your Vagus nerve, you can tap into its power to turn on your Parasympathetic Nervous System on command.
This is possible because the portion of our brain the Vagus nerve sends signals to is called the Hypothalamus.
The Hypothalamus is an interesting structure because half of it is Nervous System and the other half is Endocrine System.
The Endocrine System is a set of glands in our bodies that release hormones into our blood that act as a messenger system for our brain to our body.
The Hypothalamus is the brain’s control center for the Endocrine System!
Along with the Pituitary gland, and the Adrenal gland, the Hypothalamus forms the “hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis”.
This is a fancy way of saying that this is our “Oh Shit” button.
The HPA axis is what activates our Parasympathetic/Sympathetic Nervous Systems.
When the HPA axis is getting signals from the Vagus nerve, it knows that means we aren’t getting chased by a tiger, so it turns on the Parasympathetic so we can Rest & Digest!
Vagal Nerve Stimulation
Training the Vagus nerve has become one of the most researched areas of Neuroscience over the last few years because of the Vagus's direct access to our HPA axis.
Vagal nerve training & stimulation has been used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and epilepsy, and has been shown to boost mood, and alertness, increase emotional regulation, boost immunity, lower heart rate, and reduce blood pressure.
It has also been shown to decrease inflammation, which is the leading cause of death in the world today accounting for more than 50% of total deaths worldwide!
The nice part about training the Vagus nerve is that you can measure your process pretty easily since its firing is so connected to your heart rate!
Increased Vagal tone is generally associated with a lower heart rate and increased heart rate variability.
Fitbits, Whoops, Ora rings, Apple Watches, and tons more sensors like these all calculate and track both of these things, which makes it super easy to study what things affect Vagal tone!
That being said, here are some of the top things you can do to train your Vagus nerve!
9 Ways to Train/Activate your Vagus Nerve
For as long as you read the Heroes Digest, sleep will be at the top of every list relating to your brain health!
Sleep is the most powerful medicine in the world, and when we’re sleep-deprived, guess what system keeps us away? The Sympathetic Nervous System!
Sleeping 7-9hrs per night is the #1 way to activate your Vagus nerve!
2. Humming, Singing, or Chanting
Are you familiar with the “OM” mantra that’s often tied to meditation? This isn’t by accident.
Research shows that chanting, and especially chanting OM, stimulates the muscles in the back of your throat, which are connected to your vagus nerve.
Singing and Humming have a similar effect! All 3 of these things increase vagal activation and stimulate the Parasympathetic mode.
3. Probiotics & Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Probiotics support your gut health, which as we’ve talked about is where the Vagus nerve ends.
When your gut is healthy, it activates your Vagus nerve letting your HPA Axis know that all is well.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids have been shown to have a similar effect on Vagal tone!
You can get these from fish oil, or if you’re a vegan, you can find them in chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seed oil, and walnuts.
4. Meditation & Mindfulness
Meditation & Mindfulness have been getting a lot of attention over the last few years, which is no surprise because they are both non-intrusive strategies for combating stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has been widely studied for its ability to bring you back into the present moment and help you regain a sense of control over your emotions.
This “bringing you back to the present moment” flex of your meditation muscles is a repetition for your Vagus nerve!
Research has shown that people who participate in mindfulness & meditation practices experience greater heart rate variability during and after they finish by strengthening their Vagus nerve.
5. Yoga & Exercise
Yoga or “movement meditation” is a parasympathetic activation exercise that helps with digestion, blood flow, and more by activating your Vagus nerve!
Exercise has also been shown that exercise can directly impact the activity of your vagus nerve, it enhances vagal tone, and increases heart rate variability.
One of the best types of exercise for Vagal activation is a HIIT workout, if you don’t know what this is, they are short interval workouts that can be as short as 15mins!
Just type “HIIT workout” into Youtube to find one that works best for you.
6. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. As you breathe in, feel your stomach expand, and when you exhale, your stomach should go back down.
This is called “belly breathing” because you’re using your diaphragm to take in a deeper breath of air, which shrinks the amount of space your heart has to pump.
This is good, because it causes the Vagus nerve to send a signal to your HPA Axis that it can slow the heart rate down and decrease blood pressure!
7. Cold Exposure
If you haven’t read our blog on Cold Exposure already, you can check it out here.
If you did read it, you won’t be surprised that research around cold exposure shows that acute cold exposure will activate the cholinergic neurons that are part of the vagus nerve pathways, and it stimulates the vagus nerve.
This stimulation of the Vagus nerve during cold exposure comes from something called the “Diving Reflex” in our bodies.
We cover tons of ways to add cold exposure into your day in our blog here!
8. Social Connection & Laughter
Social Connection is one of the 5 areas of the Hero’s Body that we talk about a lot, and for a great reason!
When we are around our tribe, our brain relaxes, which increases Vagal activity and once again improves your vagal tone.
Laughing is an especially powerful part of Social Connection because it has a similar effect as Humming & Singing does on nerves in the back of our throat, ie the Vagus nerve!
9. ASMR Sounds
This one is one of the coolest, ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.
These are sound triggers that send “tingles” from your scalp down your spine and help calm your nervous system.
These sounds could be whispering, scratching, tapping, and other noises that pull you into a trance.
These sounds activate the Vagus nerve, and there are tons on Youtube if you’re curious to check them out.
Bonus: The Vagus Nerve Reset
This is a secret weapon you can use to reset your Vagus nerve in a pinch, it only takes 2-30seconds, and anyone can do it!
Check out this video of me demonstrating it —> Vagus Nerve Reset Demo
Here’s the written version:
Lie on your back
Interweave your fingers on both hands and place them behind your head
Without turning your head, look to the right
Remain here until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
Return to the neutral state with head and eyes straight
Repeat on the other side
The yawn, swallow, or sigh is a sign that you’ve activated your Rest & Digest system!
If you enjoyed this tip, you’d love the 21-Day Challenge we have going on right now, it’s called the 21-Day Learn Your Brain to Save Your Mental Health Challenge!
In it, we teach the basics of Neuroscience, and tools just like this to improve your Mental and Emotional Well-being!
If you’d like to learn more, click the button below!
I hope you enjoyed today’s topic, if you did, please forward & share it with a friend!
See you guys next week, and until then, live Heroically 🦾