Stress and Resetting the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body, comprising between 80% and 90% of afferent nerves, mostly conveying sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system. The vagus nerve affects all the organs, from the neck down to the colon. The right vagus branch innervates the sinoatrial node of the heart. In healthy people, the parasympathetic tone from these sources is well-matched to sympathetic tone.
Sighing or slowly exhaling is a way to stimulate the vagus nervous system. When stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the heart rate increases, digestion stops, and epinephrine and norepinephrine are released into the system. This is the fight/flight/freeze response.
The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down, especially after stressful situations. According to Dr. Mladen Golubic of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, “The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.”
Pulmonologist Dr. Ni-Cheng Liang states, “There are unique connections between the lungs and the vagus nerve…responsible for the parasympathetic nervous system.” She advises taking advantage of your physiology and prolonging your exhale, even two or four times longer than the inhale. When you exhale, purse your lips like you are blowing out birthday candles.
Why Is This Important?
Among other things, vagal nerves mediate the raising and lowering of the heart rate. Our heart rhythms can be affected by unhealthy stress. We can overload our nervous system with excessive screen time, make poor food choices, lose sleep, endlessly sit, or accumulate trauma energy. When we lose balance in our nervous system, inflammation is engaged, our immune system is compromised, and elevated, prolonged levels of anxiety are produced. This can lead to excessive worry, feelings of impending doom, and a state of inner tension. Once the balance in the nervous system is lost, it is difficult to regain. Many people who have experienced COVID have long term issues with imbalance of the vagus nerve and the proper functioning of the central nervous system. Because the vagus nerve supplies tone to the lungs, heart, and diaphragm it can have a very large impact upon the body.
What can be done?
I utilize a screening tool that allows me to scan a patient’s Heart Rate Variability, giving insight into the vagal tone. The results are then graphically displayed to show any imbalances in the nervous system. This tool also is utilized to objectively measure changes resulting from a treatment plan.
Network Spinal, or simply Network Care, is a highly researched chiropractic technique for restoring the nervous system to a more balanced state. Tension, anxiety, and blocks can be removed with the gentle touches made by Network Care. Call or text me today at or follow here to make an appointment to get your Heart Rate Variability measured.
Tips to Improve and Reset Your Vagus Nerve
Mindfully slowing your breathing while increasing your exhalation will engage the parasympathetic system. Dr. Liang suggests a 4-7-8 breath rhythm. Inhale to a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and slowly exhale all of your breath to a count of eight.
There are other ways to stimulate the parasympathetic system; singing, humming or chanting (the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords), ice baths (a practice of many professional athletes), meditation, massage, and laughter. Be aware that I have noticed some crazy tips on social media platforms for resetting your vagus nerve, many of which are not scientifically backed.
Now that I am conscious of my body’s response to the pain, I can mindfully engage in activities that engage my parasympathetic nervous system. Yes, you’ll find me humming and sighing more now. The more I regularly engage my vagus nerve, the more relaxed I’ll be, the more I’ll be able to overcome anxiety and, most importantly, use my mind to focus on something other than the pain.