Hot Topic: The Vagus Nerve

Dr Ailsa Care

MBChB, MRCGP, AFMCP

October 21, 2021

It seems these days that everyone is talking about the vagus nerve and how improving its function can improve our health in many different ways.

So what is the vagus nerve? It is a long nerve which connects our brain to our gut and other organs. It is a 2 way connection so carries information from the brain to our internal organs (heart, lungs and gut) and vice versa.

The vagus nerve helps to control essential automatic functions such as pulse rate, breathing, blood pressure as well as digestive functions like stomach acid, digestive enzyme production and also stimulates gut motility (that is a muscular contraction that moves matter down the gut to make room for more food coming in. I call it the “move on down the bus” function!)

The vagus nerve responds to stress by triggering the  sympathetic or “fight/flight” response which increases our pulse, blood pressure and breathing rate to get blood/oxygen to our muscles to enable us to run away from danger faster and therefore survive. Once the danger has passed what is supposed to happen is that we return to the default state or parasympathetic “rest/relax/digest”.

The problem with modern life is that it is no longer a short term acute stress like a tiger chasing us but frequent/chronic stress that keeps us in “fight/flight” most of the time.

Common symptoms related to this chronic sympathetic nervous system activation include:

tense/hard muscles, sore neck and shoulders, headaches, back pain, grinding teeth at night, cold hands and feet, excessive sweating, feeling nervous, irritability, lack of energy, feeling tearful, chest pains, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, poor digestion, constipation (not moving on down the bus!) And the list goes on…

So what can we do to help?

Here are some tips for you to try. It is not about doing all of them. Think of it like a pick and mix, try different techniques and find the ones that you personally find helpful.

Movement – mindful movement like yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, walking

Breathing exercises

  • meditation, mindfulness
  • breathing should be deep and slow filling your lungs with the exhalation longer than the inhalation. Aim to slow it down to around 6 breaths per minute

Good balanced Nutrition

  • there is a strong connection between the vagus and digestion
  • eat a balanced diet including probiotic (contain healthy bacteria e.g kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, komboucha, live yoghurt) and prebiotic (fibres that feed the healthy bacteria like onions, garlic, leeks, chicory) foods
  • cut down in simple sugars and high density carbohydrates
  • eating fibre stimulates vagus impulses to the brain
  • ensure you chew your food thoroughly

 Laughter

  • having a good laugh boosts your mood, strengthens your immune system and stimulates the vagus

 Singing/chanting/humming

  • Activates the vagal brake on the heart’s pacemaker which triggers a parasympathetic response (rest and relax)

Massage

  • Body/foot/head massage stimulates the vagus and stimulates the release of oxytocin from the brain which in turn inhibits the release of stress chemicals

 Other

  • Playing a wind instrument
  • Dancing
  • Cold water face immersion
  • Loud gargling with water
  • Positive affirmations
  • Positive social connection
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Prayer
  • Fish oils (EPA/DHA) – please consult your Dr or pharmacist before taking as they can interact with some medications
  • Sleep
  • Laying on your right side
  • Acupuncture
  • Sun exposure – ensuring of course that you don’t burn

 The Basic Exercise (from the book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve by Stanley Rosenberg)

  • Test first – rotate your neck to the right as far as it can comfortably go. Notice any strain or pain that may occur. Rotate your neck back to the centre. Now, rotate your head to the left as far as it can comfortably go and also notice any pain or strain that you may feel. Notice how far both sides are able to rotate.
  • Basic Exercise – lie comfortably on your back or sit up with your spine straight and in line with your head. Weave the fingers of both hands together and place them tightly behind the back of your head
  • Keep your head still and moving your eyes only, look to the right as if you are gazing at the tip of your right elbow. Stay in this position for about 30-60seconds until there is a sign of release from the autonomic nervous system in the form of a sigh, yawn or swallow
  • Move your eyes back to looking straight ahead and repeat on the left side.
  • After completing the exercise test the rotation in your neck again to see if there is any
    improvement in the range of neck rotation, sensation of strain, stiffness or pain.

Vagus Nerve Stimulator e.g Sensate device

Please note do not use if you have a pacemaker

This is a large pebble like device which is worn around the neck on a lanyard and sits over your breast bone (sternum). Once switched on it connects via bluetooth to an app on your phone which plays specially designed music and coordinates with the vibrations from the Sensate device. A number of different tracks can be selected depending on time and preference.

Personally I have found it gave me a very deep feeling of relaxation and has been a great help in managing the stress of my busy GP days.