The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Health and Well-Being

By Anna Hunt

At the center of our bodies resides a long, wiry nerve called the vagus nerve. It extends all the way from the brain down through the chest and beyond the stomach. In addition, it connects to all major organs, including ears, eyes, tongue, kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs, and the colon. Scientists believe that vagus nerve stimulation can affect anxiety and depression, blood pressure and heart rate, as well as the function of digestive organs including the stomach, pancreas and the gall bladder.

Role of the Vagus Nerve in the Body

Being the largest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve affects more than just the body’s physical functions. Some research indicates that a healthy vagus nerve is important to social bonding and empathy, as well as our ability to make complex decisions. Mystics believe that it is also the intersection between our conscious and unconscious minds, the physical and the subtle bodies. Therefore, the vagus nerve may be the most relevant part of our physical body that relates to our peace of mind and happiness.

Clearly, the vagus nerve plays a critical role in our bodies, hence it is also vital to our well-being. People with impaired vagal activity can suffer from depression, panic disorders, anxiety, mood swings and chronic fatigue. Physically, vagal imbalance can result in irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, heartburn, unhealthy heart rate, and chronic inflammation.

Scientists have been conducting research on the vagus nerve to understand how it impacts our overall well-being. In their research, they found that stimulating the vagus nerve with electrical signals has the potential for reducing depression and anxiety. Scientists also found that vagus nerve stimulation can improve conditions such as epilepsy and obesity.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises

People with optimal vagal tone are resilient under stress because they can easily shift from an excited state to a relaxed state. This switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, digestion and fertility. As a result, these individuals often enjoy excellent digestion, optimal heart rate and good overall health.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy for someone to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system and relax. That is because we spend so much of our time in a state of fight or flight. This state is governed by our sympathetic nervous system, which floods the body with stress hormones.

Luckily, there are plenty of natural and non-intrusive ways that you can stimulate the vagus nerve. Here are five vagus nerve stimulation exercises to help you improve your vagal tone.

1. Mindful Breathing

Long, deep breathing is the best way to activate the vagus nerve. Even though the vagus nerve is already involved in our involuntary breathing, when we do it consciously it helps to improve vagal tone. This, in turn, gives the the body a chance to rejuvenate.

Here is a simple mindful breathing exercise. First, make sure to sit comfortably in a chair or on a folded blanket. Then follow this breath pattern:

  • Sit upright and close the eyes.
  • As you inhale, lift your collarbone and sit straighter.
  • As you exhale, soften and relax.
  • As you inhale, expand the sides of your rib cage.
  • As you exhale, soften and relax.
  • As you inhale, expand the front and back of your rib cage.
  • As you exhale, soften and relax.
  • Repeat for 5-10 minutes.

In addition to mindful breathing, restorative yoga is an ideal way to stimulate the vagus nerve, as it incorporates both the breath and relaxing postures. Here are three beneficial restorative postures.

2. Supported Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana)

Sit with legs extended straight, and fold forward over legs. Keep neck and shoulders relaxed. Make sure to support the torso/arms/head with a chair, bolsters or pillows. If the low back is not comfortable, sit on a pillow or folded blanket. Hold for 10-15 minutes, breathing mindfully.

3. Supported Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Lay flat on the ground with legs bent. Place feet flat on the ground, hips’ width apart. Lift hips, and place a block (or large book) under the low back/pelvis. Rest back down onto the block. Hold for 10-15 minutes, breathing mindfully.

4. Reclined Spinal Twist with Bent Knees (Supta Jathara Parivartanasana)

Lay flat on the ground with legs bent. Place feet flat on the ground, and hold a block between the knees. Lay arms out in a T position. Take bent knees over to one side. Place another block, bolster or folded blanket underneath the knees if they do not rest comfortably to the ground. Turn head away from the knees. Hold 5-10 minutes, breathing mindfully. Then, repeat on the other side.

5. Walking Meditation

Walking meditation is a wonderful practice because you can do it almost anywhere and anytime. It involves very deliberate thinking about doing a series of actions that you normally do automatically. First, find a good location where you can walk back and forth for 10-15 paces, or where you can walk continuously for 10-15 minutes. Walk at whatever pace you’d like, breaking down each step as follows:

  • Lift one foot totally off the ground.
  • Observe the foot as it swings forward and lowers.
  • Observe the foot as it makes contact with the ground, heel first.
  • Feel the weight shift onto that foot as the body moves forward.
  • Continue for 10-15 minutes, breathing mindfully.

If possible, practice your walking meditation barefoot. This allows you to notice additional sensations as your feet touch the ground.

Anna Hunt is the founder of AwarenessJunkie.com, an online community paving the way to better health, a balanced life, and personal transformation. She is also the co-editor and staff writer for WakingTimes.com. Anna is a certified Hatha yoga instructor and founder of Atenas Yoga Center. She enjoys raising her three children and being a voice for optimal human health and wellness. Visit her essential oils store here.

This article (The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Health and Well-Being) was originally published by Awareness Junkie, 2017, and is reprinted here with permission. 

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