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“Trust your gut.”
“I could feel it in my gut.”
“My stomach was in knots.”
These are emotional reactions we’ve all experienced during difficult or uncertain situations. There’s a “knowing” that goes on that has nothing to do with our brains.
Most of us think that it’s our emotions, our heart, that’s telling us what to do at these times. But in reality, it’s something much more physical than that.
You see, your gut and brain are constantly sending signals to each other that tell you how to feel and how to react to many situations.
The major nerve that carries these signals is like a five-lane highway.
Four of those five lanes carry electrical signals from your body to your brain. The fifth lane runs in the opposite direction, letting our brain communicate with all parts of our body.
Just imagine what happens when traffic on that road gets backed up!
Depression, migraine, and a dozen other health problems can be traced back to a traffic jam on this bodily superhighway.
The vagus nerve: In charge of virtually everything
The vagus nerve is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves. It is actually a bundle of nerves, about 2 inches in diameter.
The term “vagus” (Latin for “wandering”) is appropriate for this bundle of nerves because the vagus nerve wanders all the way down from the brainstem to the colon, touching various organs along the way.
This nerve “superhighway” branches out to virtually all our major organs. In its journey from the brain to the colon, it touches the:
- Gall bladder
- Female fertility organs
It helps regulate blood pressure and glucose balance, stimulates the secretion of saliva and assists in controlling taste and releasing tears.
The vagus is also in charge of the gut-brain connection that helps us manage our emotions.
What can go wrong
As you can see, if the vagus nerve is damaged or becomes dysfunctional in any way, a lot of things can go wrong in the body.
But what causes this damage?
When you consider how many bodily systems the nerve passes, it’s not surprising how easily the vagus can be affected. Things that can cause damage or dysfunction include:
- Chronic alcohol abuse
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- Upper respiratory viral infections
Trauma (such as a car accident), surgical complications and conditions that damage the nervous system like Parkinson’s disease all have the potential to damage the vagus nerve.
What are the symptoms of a damaged vagus nerve? As you might expect, they cover a lot of ground:
- Depression and anxiety
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness and fatigue
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chronic nausea
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
How to “hack” your vagus nerve
Also, because it travels throughout the body, there are many things you can do to help stimulate the vagus nerve.
Positive social interactions. Participants in a study who spent time repeating positive phrases about friends and family and thinking compassionately about them showed an overall increase in positive emotions. This led to an improvement in heart rate variability (controlled by the vagus nerve).
Cold. Exposing your body to acute cold conditions, such as taking a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face, increases stimulation of the vagus nerve. While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, while parasympathetic activity increases.
Gargling. Gargling stimulates the muscles of the pallet which are fired by the vagus nerve.
Singing. Singing at the top of your lungs works the muscles in the back of the throat and activates the vagus nerve. Singing in unison increases heart rate variability and vagus nerve function.
Exercise. We’re not talking about running marathons here. Mild exercise has been shown to stimulate gut flow, which is mediated by the vagus nerve.
Tickle your ear. Researchers gave volunteers tVNS (transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation) therapy for 15 minutes a day for two weeks to an area of the outer ear using a tens unit. They saw an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, which demonstrated a rebalancing of their autonomic nervous systems, but also reported improvements in their mental health and sleeping patterns.
- 12 ways to unlock the power of the vagus nerve — upliftconnect.com
- Top 10 vagus nerve disorders — nerve-injury.com
- The Effect of T’ai Chi Exercise on Autonomic Nervous Function of Patients With Coronary Artery Disease — Pub Med.gov