What is the vagus nerve?

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve has been the subject of fascination and mystery throughout history. In ancient times, Greek and Roman physicians believed it helped regulate breathing and control the voice. In the Middle Ages, the vagus nerve was thought to be a spiritual channel between the body and the soul.

The vagus nerve was also believed to play a role in tear production, with the term “vagus” being used to describe a wandering person.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the true nature of the vagus nerve began to unfold.

“Scientific studies have begun to provide more detailed insights into the functions of the vagus nerve,” she said Megan Donnelly, DOlead neurologist and female headache specialist at Novant Health.

What is the vagus nerve and what does it do?

The vagus nerve is divided into two main branches – the left and right vagus nerves – and runs down from the brain through the neck to the chest and abdomen. This nerve is a critical element of ours parasympathetic nervous systemthe part of our brain that, to put it simply, calms the waters.

“Think of the vagus nerve as the main nerve for rest and digestion,” Donnelly said. “It reduces heart rate and blood pressure and causes digestion.”

The vagus nerve also regulates the respiratory rate and some reflex actions such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting.

What happens when the vagus nerve malfunctions?

When the vagus nerve doesn’t function normally, also known as abnormal vagal tone, your health can be affected in many ways.

An overactive or overreactive vagus nerve can cause fainting, slow heart rate, and nausea. An underactive vagus nerve can lead to a rapid heart rate, decreased digestion, and gastroparesisa condition that prevents the stomach from emptying completely.

Furthermore, abnormal vagal tonewhat it’s called when the vagus nerve doesn’t work properly, it can cause:

  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Acid reflux
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sluggish speech or hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Migraine attacks
  • Epilepsy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

A hypoactive vagus nerve is also connected to anxiety AND depression. That’s why vagus nerve stimulation is sometimes used as a treatment for these mental health conditions.

“There are more portable devices (on the market),” Donnelly said. “They’re held in the neck area and emit gentle electrical impulses.”

Autoimmune conditions can also be linked to a malfunctioning vagus nerve, although they may be the cause rather than the result of the vagus nerve malfunctioning.

“If anything, autoimmune disease can affect nerves throughout our bodies, and the vagus nerve is the largest and longest,” said Donnelly.

Long Covid, for example, can trigger an autoimmune reactionwhich can affect the vagus nerve.

Does stimulating the vagus nerve help anxiety?

It has been shown that the activation of the vagus nerve they help reduce anxiety – at least at the time of an anxiety flare-up. Thus, stimulating the vagus nerve during, for example, a panic attack can help calm the body.

The best way to stimulate the vagus nerve, which you can’t physically touch, is to expose yourself to freezing temperatures.

“Cold water immersion, with some mixed results, has been shown to improve vagal tone and get better HRV (heart rate variability),” She said Sarah-Nicole Bostan, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist who is board-certified in biofeedback. “The parasympathetic nervous system quickly kicks into action, which results in a slower heart rate. This may seem critical to a person experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a rapid heartbeat and difficulty breathing.

Ice is a great tool to get the vagus nerve into action. Jennifer Surak-Zammitti, LCSWa psychotherapist, recommends “icing” to her patients as a coping mechanism for anxiety.

“When they feel anxious, I will tell them to hold and squeeze ice cubes in their hand,” Surak-Zammitti said.

She also recommends icing to people at risk of self-harm.

“I tell them to keep an ice cube on their wrists,” Surak-Zammitti said. “It gives them the feel of something on their wrists that they crave. It also buys them time to learn another coping skill to get out of the situation (i.e.) making them want to self-harm.

If you’re feeling anxious, even something as simple as super cold air can help.

“If it’s winter, open a window and let the cold air hit your face,” said Surak-Zammitti. “It’s extremely relaxing.”

How can you improve the tone of your vagal nerve?

vagal tone it decreases with age (which you can’t do without), but you can increase your physical activity. Research shows that exercise leads to a higher, healthier tone.

“This includes not only focusing on exercise frequency, but gradually increasing the intensity and length of time spent, and varying the types of exercises performed,” Bostan said.

Another way to get vagal tone – deep breathing. One recent studies found that just five minutes of slow, deep breaths reduced anxiety and increased vagal tone.

The vagus nerve is still mysterious in some ways

While we understand more about the vagus nerve today, there is one aspect that is still, well, vagus. For example, we don’t know whether abnormal vagal tone is more common in women than in men.

“Overall, the relationship between gender and vagal tone is complex, and more research is needed to fully understand how these factors are related,” said Donnelly.

In the meantime, it’s always a good idea to move more, especially as we get older. And we should keep in mind, when we’re in the throes of anxiety, that our mothers were right all along: A cold compress on the forehead can actually help make everything better.