Calming the vagus nerve
An exploration of the most extraordinary nerve in the body, the vagus nerve, and the simple practices that can help to soothe us and bring us greater calm. By Fenella Lindsell
The role of nerves and the nervous system in general is to carry important messages from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. This information allows us to enact, stimulate or suppress vital bodily functions like respiration, digestion and movement. The vagus nerve — also known as the ‘wandering’ or ‘vagrant’ nerve — is one of these key communicators and sits in the presidential seat when it comes to regulating our ‘rest and digest’ bodily functions.
This enquiry will clarify the function of the vagus nerve and explain how to stimulate and tone it. We’ll take a look at why ancient practices such as yoga and chanting hold a valuable relationship to this nerve.
What is it?
The vagus nerve is the longest in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), so it plays a vital role in automated processes like digestion, breathing and the beating of the heart. By connecting the brain to many areas of the upper body, this nerve is a key messenger that regulates lung, heart and digestive tract functioning.
When we stimulate our vagus nerve, we promote better digestion, reduce the production of stress-related hormones and encourage a healthy state of rest in the body through lowered heart rate. There are several known ways of stimulating the vagus nerve such as:
- Chanting, singing and talking
- Prolonged exhalations
- Splashing cold water on the face and body
- Tensing the lower abdomen
Certain breathing techniques make use of both the prolonged exhale, lower abdomimal and pelvic floor contraction, which results in greater vagal nerve stimulation and deeper feelings of restfulness. This is especially valuable if there is an extended pause between the end of the exhale and subsequent inhale increasing CO2 levels in the blood, vasodilation and improved oxygen uptake in the cells of the body.
High vagal nerve tone improves blood/glucose levels which can in turn reduce the likelihood of diabetes. It is also believed that cardiovascular health improves too. Low vagal nerve tone is often reflected in high levels of inflammation in the body, raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as symptoms of depression.
The Om chant
The sacred ‘Om’ chant is used in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Dharma religions, and also many yogic practices. It is used to feel a sense of calm, bring awareness into the present and offer a meditative perspective for those who take part. Although we may not need or even want proof for the medicinal or wellbeing value of this to practice, scientific evidence has indeed confirmed some things about the ‘Om’ chant.
Enquiry (Kalyani et al. 2011) has shown that the vibration in the vocal cords caused by the chanting of ‘Om’ has a stimulating effect on the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal nerve stimulation treatment is used for depression and epilepsy and ‘Om’ chants are now also being considered in treating these conditions.
Another study (Kumar et al. 2010) found that Om chanting promotes a state of mental alertness with physiological rest, as well as a decrease in sensory transmission time in auditory cortices, thus heightening auditory perception.
The nature of yoga in relation to the vagus nerve is that it involves a disciplined approach towards breathing. All yogic practices rely on controlling the breath and in most yogic practices, extending the exhalation is used as a way to deepen a stretch or pose.
This disciplined breathing is partly responsible for the sense of relaxation that follows a yoga session and as we now know, regulating the breath and extending exhalation results in vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). This means a lowered heart rate, breathing rate, improved digestive function and a promoted restfulness in the body.
Beyond yoga, it has been shown that the overlap between contemplative actions and VNS tend to involve a disciplined approach to breathing. Therefore, many practices in addition to yoga, such as Tai Chi and meditation also have valuable benefits to vagal function.
To put it humbly, the vagus nerve is a big deal. Now living in times that are increasingly stressful to human beings, the importance of de-stressing and calming the mind and body is paramount. These days we work through laptops in anxiety-prone, hunched-over positions and we communicate through mobile screens and emojis.
It’s not all bad, but without a counter-balance, our contemporary lifestyles can easily surpass the boiling point of what is manageable. Engaging with the practices mentioned, like simple breathing techniques, can help to bring a natural state of calm and balance out the stress of contemporary living.
With increasing support from scientific research, and millennia of tradition behind some of the practices, it’s worth considering how stimulating your vagus nerve could be a source of immense, yet calming reward.
Fenella Lindsell is a yoga teacher and yoga teacher trainer.