What is the Vagus Nerve?

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

The vagus nerve was also thought to play a role in the production of tears, with the term “vagus” being used to describe the vagus.

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

“Scientific studies are beginning to provide a more detailed understanding of the functions of the vagus nerve,” says Megan Donnelly, MD, lead neurologist and women’s 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 it runs from your brain up through your neck to your chest and abdomen. This nerve is an important element of our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain that, simply put, calms things down.

“Think of the vagus nerve as the main nerve for relaxation and digestion,” Donnelly said. “It lowers heart rate and blood pressure and stimulates digestion.”

The vagus nerve also regulates breathing rate and certain reflex actions such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting.

What happens when the vagus nerve doesn’t work properly?

When the vagus nerve is not functioning properly, also known as abnormal vagal tone, your health can suffer in many ways.

An overactive or overresponsive vagus nerve can cause fainting, decreased heart rate, and nausea. Dysfunction of the vagus nerve can lead to a fast heart rate, decreased digestion, and gastroparesis, a condition that prevents your stomach from emptying completely.

In addition, abnormal vagal tone, which is when your vagus nerve isn’t working properly, can cause:

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

An underactive vagus nerve is also associated with anxiety and depression. This is why vagus nerve stimulation is sometimes used as a treatment for these mental health conditions.

“There are many handheld devices [on the market]Donnelly said. “They are held in the neck area and emit weak electrical impulses.”

Autoimmune diseases can also be associated with a vagus nerve that isn’t working properly, although they may not be the cause of a malfunctioning vagus nerve.

“If anything, autoimmune disease can affect the nerves in our body, and the vagus nerve is the biggest and longest,” Donnelly said.

Prolonged Covid, for example, can cause an autoimmune reaction that can affect the vagus nerve.

Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Help Anxiety?

Activation of the vagus nerve has been shown to help reduce anxiety, at least during anxiety flare-ups. So stimulating the vagus nerve during, say, a panic attack can help calm the body.

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

“Cold water immersion has been shown, with some mixed results, to enhance vaginal tone and improve HRV[heart rate variability],” says Sarah-Nicole Bostan, a clinical health psychologist who is board certified in biofeedback. The parasympathetic nervous system quickly kicks in, causing the heart to slow down. This can be the basis for a person experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing.”

Ice is an excellent tool for invading the vagus nerve. Jennifer Surak-Zammitti, LCSW, a psychotherapist, recommends ice as a coping mechanism for anxiety to her patients.

“When they get anxious, I’ll tell them to hold and squeeze the ice cubes,” Surak-Zammitti said.

He also recommends applying ice to people at risk of self-harm.

“I tell them to hold the ice cube on their wrists,” Surak-Zammitti said. “It gives them the feeling of something on their wrists that they’re reaching for. It also gives them time to learn another coping skill to get out of the situation [that is] causing them to want to self-harm.”

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

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

How can you improve the tone of your vagus nerve?

Vagal tone decreases with age (which you can’t help), but you can increase physical activity. Research shows that exercise leads to higher and healthier tone.

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

Another way to tone the vagal is deep breathing. A recent study found that just five minutes of slow, deep breathing reduced anxiety and increased vagal tone.

The vagus nerve is still a mystery in some ways

Although we understand more about the vagus nerve today, there is one aspect of it that is still, well, unclear. For example, we do not know whether abnormal vaginal tone is more common in women than in men.

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

In the meantime, it’s always a good idea to move more, especially as you age. And we must remember when we are troubled that our mothers were right all along. a cold compress on your forehead can actually help make things better.

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