Tell me about the Vagus Nerve and why I should care...

You probably wouldn’t have guessed it from looking at my smiling face, and when I’m sharing about sleep on Facebook, but for years now, I have struggled through my daily life with a big dose of chronic pain. On bad days my pain has been sharp and debilitating, while on my best days it is a dull ache that shadows my every move. Yeah, that’s right - my best days have still pretty bad.

Throughout my long and arduous journey to find some relief from the chronic pain that has haunted me since the birth of my son, I’ve had medical professionals point me towards a whole raft of possible causes and solutions. Some of them offered me a little bit of relief, while others felt about as helpful as wishing on a star that things will be better in the morning. What I've tried up to date:  Chiropractor, Acupuncture, Acupressure Massage (painful), Stem, PEMF (some relief) changed my mattress (expensive), stopped wearing heels, essential oils (Thanks Young Living for the diffuser I use for my son's room), Native American herbal concoction (smelled good), wore a neck brace to bed, heat therapy, hot rock massage, infrared therapy, this strange stretching machine, neck roller, body roller, and LDN.  Fun fact: The Blue Fairy did not magically appear to solve all my problems.

After seeing enough medical professionals to fill a convention, and being the hacker I am, one statement kept coming to me in my meditation practice, Lane, check the vagus nerve. At first, this was a term that I had never heard before and chalked it up to medical jargon going over my head. But more and more I returned to the vagus nerve idea, I realized that it must somehow be linked to my chronic pain, so learning how to take care of it I figured just might be the key to releasing me from the cage of pain that is my life, it's also a pretty great name for a wrestling night! HA!

Luckily for you, what happens in the vagus nerve isn’t going to stay in the vagus nerve (see what I did there?). In fact, I think it’s time we had a little masterclass about what exactly the vagus nerve is, what it does and what that means for you.

WHAT IS THE VAGUS NERVE?

The vagus nerve is the longest of 12 cranial nerves, extending all the way from the brain to the abdomen by way of major organs including the heart, esophagus, and lungs. Sometimes known as cranial nerve X (an awesome comic book hero, If I could ever name one!), it forms a crucial part of the involuntary nervous system responsible for commanding unconscious body procedures, such as maintaining a constant heart rate and food digestion.

Despite generally being referred to in the singular, there is actually two bunches of nerves that branch out throughout the body from either side of your neck. The name ‘vagus’ actually comes from the Latin word for ‘wandering’ because it literally wanders from the brain and through the organs in the neck and chest, with different types of nerve fibers collecting and distributing information throughout the body.

Aside from the vagus nerve’s crucial role in the involuntary nervous system, it also performs vital functions including sensory functions - specifically from the throat, heart, lungs, and abdomen - and motor functions in the neck, such as swallowing and speech. On top of all these crucial functions, the vagus nerve also plays a part in relaxation, digestion, and even arousal. Basically, if it is happening above the waist you can place a pretty good bet that the vagus nerve is playing a part.

Since the vagus nerve runs from the diaphragm to the brain it is not only responsible for helping deep breaths to be calming, but for the sensation that causes hiccups. (HA) So the next time you are experiencing hiccups, trying alternating light pressure on either side of your neck where the vagus nerve runs - you’ll find it by putting your fingers behind your ears and running them about halfway down your neck.  Maybe this pressure will help you alleviate them. :)

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WHY DO WE FORGET ABOUT IT?

When it comes to our body’s subconscious functions it would be easy to think that they happen automatically, but the reality is that our brain is constantly working behind the scenes to send off signals to remind each of our vital organs to act. The only time you’re aware of your breath, for example, is either when you’re exercising (and even then mostly just when you are ‘out’ of breath) or when you’re consciously controlling your breathing in a meditation session, you are meditating, right?  You shouldn’t be finding yourself turning blue or passing out due to a lack of oxygen throughout the day because you forgot to breathe and that’s thanks to the vagus nerve’s effects on your nervous system.

There are a number of reasons why I keep coming back to the vagus nerve to treat and diagnose my chronic pain, mainly due to the fact that its proximity to my pain meant it was most likely linked in some way. The sensory functions of the vagus nerve can also tap into the pain and be a symptom of vagus nerve dysfunction, or at the very least localized pain could be attributed to my pinched nerve in the region. OUCH.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT IT?

If the whole talking, breathing, tasting and digesting thing isn’t enough to start ringing alarm bells in your head that this is something you need to be aware of, then you might just be interested in some of the other vital functions that your vagus nerve plays a part in.

If you’ve been hanging around with me for a while you know I love the microbiome… and Gut health has been a big topic of discussion in recent years as more and more professionals begin to understand the important connection our gut has with our brain and our body’s ability to function. By transmitting signals between the two organs our body is able to regulate its need for different hormones, instigate an anti-inflammatory response or even simply tell your brain that you’re full, like don’t eat that second serving of cheesecake! As a result, a decrease in vagus nerve activity may be linked to obesity as it helps to relay the fact that you’re full to your brain to get you to stop eating. (That’s helpful to know, right?)

When you’re feeling anxious or having a panic attack it is recommended that you take some deep, calming breaths from the diaphragm to help release a feeling of calm throughout your body via the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is dysfunctioning, your body is unable to oppose the natural ‘fight or flight’ response, which can lead to hyperarousal, anxiety, insomnia, and an increased heartbeat. Stimulating your vagus nerve is considered an effective treatment for severe cases of depression and anxiety.  YES!

There's even research that suggests that your vagus nerve can play a part in helping you to create and store memories by releasing the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala to consolidate the memories, which is especially exciting in regards to research into Alzheimer’s disease.
 

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3 SIMPLE WAYS TO CARE FOR YOUR VAGUS NERVE

Since the vagus nerve is linked to so many parts of your body it makes sense that it can also be connected to a number of different conditions including pain, anxiety disorders, heart disease, migraines, Fibromyalgia, obesity, and addiction - among much, much more. As a result, it is crucial that we’re able to care for our vagus nerve to ensure our life isn’t being impacted by vagal dysfunction.

  • Firstly, it’s important to remember that our diet can greatly affect the ability of our vagus nerve to function properly - and not just because of the signals it is getting from the gut. In fact, a diet high in fats (not the good kind) and carbs is usually associated with a junk food diet has been shown to greatly diminish sensitivity in the vagus nerve.
  • Since the nerve runs throughout the neck, back, and chest it can be helpful to do gentle exercises to help ease pressure on your nerves. This can include neck extensions where you touch your chin to your chest, or where you try to gently improve neck flexion by sitting up straight and gently tipping your head back as far as it can go without pain. If you’re experiencing neck or back pain it is best to visit a professional to prescribe specific exercises and ensure your form is not going to cause further damage.
  • Yoga can also be beneficial in caring for your vagus nerve as it combines gentle stretches throughout the body with targeted breathing for a calming effect, so it can help to regulate the core functions of the vagus nerve.

While my pain journey is far from complete I am confident that I have pain-free days in my future as I continue working on nourishing the connection between my vagus nerve and the rest of my body.  What are you doing to nourish your Vagus Nerve??


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