You may have already heard of the vagus nerve in one of your school biology lessons?
It’s the longest nerve in your body and is found right behind where you feel for your pulse.
One of 12 cranial nerves, this super nerve starts in the brainstem and runs all the way to your abdomen, cutting through your heart, esophagus and your lungs.
Known as “cranial nerve X”, the nerve is part of your involuntary nervous system, the system that directs your unconscious body activity, such as keeping your heart rate stable and ensuring you digest food properly. It tells the body to heal itself, essentially.
The nerve moves around your body (like a vagabone, hence the name) sending out tiny fibres to your organs, such as your heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and intestines. The vagus nerve is essentially controlling your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for stimulating your “rest and digest” activities.
But the most interesting thing about the vagus nerve is the new research that has revealed its link with treating chronic inflammation, which can lead to high blood pressure, digestive issues, and migraines. Known as the missing link, the nerve may be able to treat these issues without medication! Here’s how:
Vagal tone is the control the vagus nerve has over your heart rate. Recent studies have revealed that vagal tone is important in order to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. By tracking your heart rate in addition to your breathing rate your vagal tone can be measured in a person.
When you breathe in your heart usually speeds up slightly, and when you breathe out your heart rate speeds up a little. To determine your vagal tone, you need to establish the difference between your inhalation heart rate and your exhalation heart rate. The bigger the difference, the higher your vagal tone will be.
High or low?
Having a higher vagal tone is a good thing. It means you are more likely to be able to relax your body after suffering from stress more quickly, and your internal systems probably function better, such as:
- Sugar regulations
- Reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Better digestion
- Less migraines
- Lower depression
- Less stress and anxiety
Scientists have discovered that the vagus nerve is monitoring and responding to your body, it initiates responses to any inflammation, all of which affects your mood and your ability to cope with your body’s reactions.
Low vagal tone
If you have a low vagal tone you are more susceptible to heart problems, stokes, diabetes, depression, and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and endometriosis.
However, a number of researchers have discovered that by stimulating the nerve using electrical current you can increase your vagal tone, and improve your resilience to these problems. However, there are ways you can improve your vagal tone yourself:
- Hum – It may sound bizarre, but humming stimulates the nerve because it is connected to your vocal chords. Try it!
- Speak – Speak more and you will raise your vagal tone through your vocal chords.
- Cold water – While there is more research to be done on this technique, there has been evidence to suggest that by splashing cold water on your face you stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Breathe deeply – Take long, deep breaths and use your diaphragm to stimulate your vagus nerve.
- Yoga – The relaxed, concentrated breathing practices of yoga can increase to your vagal tone levels.
- Meditate – A study in 2010reported that meditation and thinking positive thoughts can have a positive affect on your vagus nerve.
- Improve gut health – One of the many positives of having a healthy gut is that it increases your vagal tone levels. It works by creating a loop of health from your gut, through the nerve and back. Try probiotics as a healthy bacteria supplement.