Thinking about how to come out of the traps of stress, anxiety, and depression? Well, don’t feel trapped anymore. A new study found that stimulating the vagus nerve helps in better management of your physical and mental health. Read on to know how the vagus nerve works so that you can better deal with your nervous system.
Stress and anxiety initiate an inflammatory response in our bodies. If untreated it can lead to the development and persistence of many diseases. Other than using medications, the best way to combat inflammatory conditions (including all autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus, and more) is to engage the vagus nerve and improve your vagal tone.
“By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.”
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist
The word “vagus” means “to wander” in Latin, which accurately represents the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our body that extends from the cerebellum and brainstem and wanders all over the body and branches multiple times and reaches various organs like the pharynx, larynx, heart, esophagus, stomach, gut, lungs, liver, spleen, and pancreas. The activity of the vagus nerve is known as vagal tone.
The Vagus nerve is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for “rest and digestion”, which is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for “fight or flight”. The Vagus nerve is a key player in speech, taste, swallowing, respiration, heart function, digestion, and excretion. It communicates with different organs with the help of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and hormones. Any damage to the nerve can hamper all physiological activities.
What causes vagus nerve damage?
Excessive stress or prolonged use of certain medications disrupts the vagus nerve. Inflammation and infections are other causes of poor vagal tone or functioning. This results in sleep problems, digestive issues, difficulty in breathing, lung and skin problems.
Signs of underperforming vagus nerve
- Anxiety and depression
- Weight gain
- Abdominal pain
- Memory loss
- Temperature dysregulation
- Joint and muscle pain
Various biological processes represent the activity of the vagus nerve. An increase in vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system. An increase in heart rate during inhalation and a decrease in heart rate during exhalation represent a healthy vagal tone. Bigger the difference between inhalation heart rate and exhalation heart rate, the higher the vagal tone.
Why is the vagus nerve and vagal tone important for physical and mental health?
With poor vagal tone, the body needs more time to relax and perform primary functions as the movement of wastes via the GI tract due to bacterial overgrowth. Bad gut microbes in turn influence the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis via the vagus nerve. The disturbed HPA can affect neuronal cellular activity in the brain and lead to inflammation and neurodegeneration. As mentioned earlier, the vagus nerve wanders all over the body so if it is not working well, multiple functions are affected.
This nerve influences respiratory rate, heart rate, digestive function, all of which can greatly impact your mental health. But, the most important thing is the “tone” of the vagus nerve. According to a publication by Jordan Fallis, there is a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, positive social connections, and good physical health.
People with a high vagal tone tend to have strong social connections, and experience positive emotions, and better physical health. On the other hand, people with low vagal tone experience depression, loneliness, negative feelings, and heart attacks.
Vagus nerve is also associated with brain health and gut health. You can consider vagal tone index as your body’s gut feeling that sends signals to the brain that leads to feedback loop of more positive emotions or negative emotions. Thus, the vagus nerve is important for both physical and mental health.