By Pam Teel
Your vagus nerve (pneumogastric nerve) is the tenth cranial nerve that interfaces with the para- sympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. It’s the longest and most complex of the twelve pairs of cranial nerves that emanate from the brain. It runs from the brain through the face and thorax and into your abdomen. It’s connected to your vocal chords and muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and even gargling can activate the muscles and stimulate the vagus nerve.
This nerve serves as the body’s superhighway, carrying information between the brain and the internal organs and controlling the body’s response in time of rest and relaxation. It branches out in many directions where it is responsible for carrying out sensory information from the skin of your ear, down to the muscles that you use to swallow and speak, and down to your gut. It also influences our immune systems.
It got its name because it wanders all through the body like a vagabond sending out sensory fibers and it oversees a vast range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to every organ in your body. It also helps prevent inflammation, helps make memories, is involved with the rate of your heart and initiates your body’s relaxation response.
When you are highly stressed out and full of adrenaline, the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. It translates between your brain and your gut. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, elicited by the vagus nerve, tells your lungs to breath. You can stimulate your vagus nerve by doing deep abdominal breathing or holding your breath for four to eight counts.
You can also over stimulate your vagus nerve. An example is if you get queasy when you see a lot of blood or you if are getting a shot in your arm. Your body’s reaction to stress over stimulates the nerve causing your heart rate and blood pressure to drop. This is called vasovagal syncope and is the common cause of dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting. This anti -adrenaline effect decreases the ability of the heart to pump blood upward toward the brain.
You can indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve by taking deep deliberate breaths from your belly. Deep breathing activates specific neurons that detect blood pressure. The neurons signal to the vagus nerve that blood pressure is becoming too high and the vagus nerve in turn lowers your heart rate. It also helps with calmness and digestion and communicates with the diaphragm.
How to stimulate your Vagus nerve- With slow deep diaphragmatic breathing, stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical breath of 14 to 15 per minute to 6 or 7 per minute, each interval being, five or six seconds in and the same out. This rate of slow breathing is what practitioners do when they go into a meditation or mantra. Your body senses your breathing and adapts your heart rate. It sends info up through the vagus nerve and into the brain and then back down the vagus nerve to slow down the speed of your heart. Vagal activity is highest when inhaling and lowest when exhaling.
In simpler terms, any type of deep slow diaphragmatic breathing will help your body to be in a more relaxed state. Visualize filling up the lower part of your lungs to just above the belly button like a balloon, fill that stomach with air, and then exhale slowly. This will stimulate your vagus nerve, activate your parasympathetic nervous system and improve your HRV.
There are many forms of exercises to obtain this relaxation state. Here is one for you to practice. To begin slow deep breathing, cover one nostril, inhale slowly, filling up your lungs from bottom to top until you can’t take in any more breath and then slowly release your breath through pursed lips; like you’re blowing out candles on a cake. Do this three or four times before switching to other nostril.