The human brain and central nervous system play a critical role in development; it constantly scans our environment for danger and reacts by learning how to avoid painful external stimuli and increase pleasant, healing sensations. When our nervous system malfunctions, the remainder of the muscles in our bodies fail to work correctly, and we experience pain that's sometimes excruciating.
While nerves exist throughout the human body, many of the primary ones originate in the brain and run to key organs in the torso. One of these is the vagus nerve, the largest of the 12 cranial nerves. It runs from your head to the base of the abdomen and is suspected in conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Keeping the vagus nerve healthy can help decrease pain levels and improve the overall quality of life.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is often referred to as "the wanderer" as it is the longest cranial nerve and impacts numerous systems in the body. It is parasympathetic, meaning it helps to calm the body down after receiving an unanticipated shock. Sympathetic nerves influence the flight-or-fight response and get our adrenaline pumping, while the parasympathetic nervous system returns us to homeostasis, our normal resting state.
The vagus nerve helps control our lungs and respiratory system, our heart and cardiovascular system, and our digestive tract. Because of its calmative ability, when this nerve becomes overstimulated, individuals experience dizziness, lightheadedness and even fainting, known as vasovagal syncope.
Because the vagus nerve helps control the heart, when things go awry, your heart rate may increase tremendously; alternately, it may slow down. Wide variations in heart rate, especially when accompanied by signs such as similar variations in blood pressure, may indicate a problem with the vagus nerve.
Additionally, because the vagus nerve reaches the base of the abdomen, many people with frequent gastrointestinal distress may suffer from complications affecting it. Those affected may suffer from nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or all three. They may also experience persistent bloating, and only testing by a medical doctor can determine if an underlying digestive disorder or nerve problem is the root cause of the distress.
One recent theory implicates possible infection of the vagus nerve in chronic fatigue syndrome. In a study performed on mice, researchers found the critters produced cytokines, anti-inflammatory agents to fight infection. One drawback is the production of these substances makes the person feel down and sick. The cytokines could be found in spinal fluid, although it is difficult to detect, and very few test positive for the infection on blood tests. This could explain one of the more troubling aspects of chronic fatigue, as no blood test markers exist for diagnosis.
The vagus nerve may play a role in conditions such as fibromyalgia and migraine as well. Though researchers are in the nascent phases of performing clinical research to see how vagus nerve stimulation may treat fibromyalgia, the fact that it impacts so many areas of the body lead some researchers to believe dysfunction can cause the various symptoms exhibited by those with one or both. Subjective evidence does suggest certain yoga poses that stimulate the vagus nerve may help alleviate the pain of these conditions.
Exercising Your Vagus Nerve
Fortunately, you need not undergo risky surgery to reap the benefits of stimulating your vagus nerve and resetting it to calm down during times of flares and stress. You can do so naturally by a combination of yoga and stimulating certain pressure points on the body.
One yoga pose effective for vagus nerve stimulation is the cat-cow. Get down on your hands and knees as if you were going to give a toddler a horsey ride. As you inhale, let your belly sink and your back arch. Then, as you exhale, push your back up and out like a Halloween kitty cat decoration. Repeat as often as necessary until you feel a sense of peace and equilibrium in the body.
Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through acupressure or acupuncture. Research suggests acupuncture is a valid treatment for an array of health problems, so you may experience many benefits from this alternative treatment.
Tapping the forehead right between the brows can also help stimulate the vagus nerve, as can lightly tapping the indentations found at the outside corners of the eyes. Do so gently, using only your index and middle finger. Continue for approximately 30 seconds, longer if necessary.
Protecting Your Nervous SystemBecause the vagus nerve impacts so many areas of the body, keeping it healthy is paramount. Eat a healthy diet, get moving daily and practice yoga to keep functioning at your best.