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The Healing Nature of the Vagus Nerve

Thomas Caves, RMT - Registered Massage Therapist

healing nature of the vagus nerve

The VAGUS NERVE should be celebrated for its innate healing qualities that are vital in regulating our systems, our organs and generally monitoring discomfort and disease in our body. This wandering nerve is complex and communicates with much of the body, including major organs like the heart and lungs. When stimulated, the vagus nerve has been beneficial with treating symptoms of chronic inflammation, depression, irritable bowel and insomnia to name but a few. Treatments such as acupuncture and massage therapy are effective in activating the healing qualities of the vagus nerve. More good news is that you can access the healing nature of your vagus nerve on your own time. If you have a routine of stress reduction in your life and are looking to add to your tool kit, or simply looking to kick-start a new habit, here are three tips on how to access the healing nature of your vagus nerve and add some relaxation to your busy world.

1. Deep Breathing

One of the most effective ways to stimulate your vagus nerve is by taking deep breaths. Deep and slow breathing techniques are effective in slowing down your heart rate. They also act to stimulate your vagus nerve to release acetylcholine, which is a powerful parasympathetic neurotransmitter, that aids in calming the body and restoring it to a rested and relaxed state.

Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique (described below) the next time you're feeling anxious or stressed out. You will be amazed how effective it is to soothe you into a calm and relaxed state.

The following steps should all be carried out in the cycle of one breath:

  • Let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.

  • Next, close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.

  • Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath.

  • Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.

When you inhale again, you initiate a new cycle of breath. Practice this pattern for four full breaths. This can be done seated at your desk or lying on the floor. Wherever you are, you always have access to breathe and its ability to calm you.

2. Cold Therapy

The vagus nerve is activated by exposure to cold. This makes exposing yourself to cold temperatures an easy and effective way to stimulate vagal activity by inhibiting the sympathetic response of fight or flight. Cold temperatures have been found to have an effect on reducing anxiety and stimulating the gastric nerves through vagal stimulation.

Try these cold therapy tips:

  • Turn the water to cold for the last few minutes of your regular shower. This is an effective way to ‘wake-up’ your body and mind.

  • Splash ice cold water on your face as this will have a positive effect on your vagus nerve. Short on time but need to re-fresh, this is a must-do.

  • Take a walk outside when the temperature is low, morning or night. So good for activating your vagus nerve.

  • If you feel like your body is up for the challenge, you can also try taking ice baths. This is a time proven way to activate your vagus nerve and is becoming more and more popular.

When you feel yourself getting anxious or losing concentration or getting worn out mentally, splash some cold water on your face or simply take a break and walk outside in the cold for a while.

3. Sleep Hygiene

Making sure we get enough sleep is important for good physical and mental health. Typically, when we haven't slept well at night our village of function the next day can be impaired and the lack of rest hinders clarity of thought. Sleeping also allows the body to activate self-healing mechanisms and rejuvenate itself by renewing one of cells and tissues. The relationship between sleep and vagal tone (activity of the vagus nerve) is cyclic. This means that getting sufficient sleep will boost your vagal tone. On the other hand, when your vagus nerve is not functioning properly you are likely to experience poor quality sleep and may even end up suffering insomnia.

Here are a few tips for getting a better night's sleep:

  • Go to bed at the same time everyday. Consistency is key.

  • Try avoiding mental stimulation before bed by switching off gadgets, phones, TVs and laptops.

  • Do not eat before bed, give your stomach time to settle between meals.

  • Get into the habit of waking up at the same time every day. Remember consistency is key.

  • Pillows! We all love them but let’s make sure we’re using pillows that support good spine posture. A pillow between the legs for those side sleepers really helps too!

The vagus nerve plays a big role in our overall health and is one of the pathways we can use to ensure we support our physical, mental and emotional health. Whatever you do, be consistent with it and the outcome will translate into numerous health benefits for you!

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