We hang in a balance between two nervous systems – the sympathetic (Flight or Fight) and the parasympathetic; tend and befriend’ (or rest and digest). The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) returns our body to calm after flight or fight response. Many of these responses are mediated through the 10th cranial or Vagus nerve. The word Vagus comes from the Latin word ‘to wander’ and also is the root of vagabond vagrant and vague. The VN wanders downfrom the brain stem (image of what it connects to here) and it’s nerve endings interface with organs and glands in the torso.
The VN ennervates the ear, pharynx, larynx, back of the tongue, various glands, heart, lungs, esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, small intestine and female reproductive organs. VN connections are the way we register “gut feelings” in the brain. A high ‘Vagal Tone’ (measured by heart rate responsiveness) is associated with increased digestion and ‘body repair and housekeeping’, lower heart rate, a calmer and positive outlook, vit B12 absorption, boosted social connections, decreased inflammation, decreased anxiety, and increased health (article). It is also a potential new therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis Inflammation. Performers and students stimulate the VN by deep breathing prior to a high stress show or exam. This accesses the PNS, boosting memory and decreasing stress.
So, seeing how activation of this nerve can boost our overall health, how do we increase our Vagal Tone?
We can actively stimulate our VN by doing a few things like 1) deep breathing with long exhales (activates cardiac VN connections) 2) Gargling, laughing and singing or chanting (stimulates the back of the throat where there are some VN sensory nerves) 3) oxytocin-increasing activities (hugging, partner dancing) that boost connection and social networks. Oxytocin affects VN neurons (in mice anyway).
So doing things that make you feel good and relaxed increase your Vagal Tone, and therefore your overall health. That’s good news!