In the recent years, the concept of the Gut being our second brain has become more accepted as mainstream thinking. This is a fundamental teaching of Naturopathic Physicians, which is why many treatments for a variety of symptoms, will include treatment of the digestive tract. As a fetus is developing in utero, the development of the brain and gut is essential identical tissue. As the baby further develops the brain resides in the skull and the intestinal tract resides in the gut. One of the many complex communication systems and connections of these massive organs is the Vagus nerve.
The Vagus nerve is the tenth Cranial nerve; it is one of the longest nerves and connects through the brain, heart, digestive system, liver, pancreas, just to name a few.
The Functions of the Vagus nerve is where it really becomes fascinating. The Vagus nerve is responsible for: regulation of heart rate; normalization of inflammation in the body; regulation of respiration rate; secretion of digestive enzymes and gastric acid; sensation of feeling full; sensation of feeling hungry; transmitter of information and translation of emotions to the brain, heart and gut, just to name a very few of the functions.
Knowing the responsibilities of the Vagus Nerve, it is easier to understand how various emotions can affect the body. When we have a perpetually high heart rate, or breathing rate, even whilst resting, it is likely the Vagus nerve is overstimulated. Asthma being triggered at night, is often due to overactivity of the Vagus nerve in the evening. Highly intense emotions affecting digestion as a nervous stomach, or acid reflux, or constipation or diarrhea, are all various manifestations of an overactive Vagus nerve. These are just a small number of examples of how the Vagus nerve impacts our system.
The Vagus nerve is categorized as the Parasympathetic nervous system which loosely means it is responsible for soothing the stress state of our Sympathetic nervous system. However, many factors can inflame the Vagus nerve: chronic stress; trauma; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); chronic anxiety; long term chronic illness; dormant viruses or bacteria in the system; poor posture.
In order to balance health, the Vagus nerve must always be treated. It is often complex to treat and can take many months to years to reprogram an inflamed Vagus nerve via the assistance of a skilled Natural Health Practitioner. When a patient will resort to Melatonin to sleep, or herbs to calm anxiety, or digestive enzymes to aid digestion. These are yes all “natural” remedies; however, the remedies are still just managing symptoms UNTIL the root cause of the Vagus nerve is treated. When the Vagus nerve is treated and balanced, there will be no need for Melatonin to sleep, herbs to calm anxiety or digestive enzymes to aid digestion, etc.
The treatment of the Vagus nerve likely requires being under the care of a practitioner, however, there are simple ways to treat the Vagus nerve with home techniques and incorporating lifestyle factors:
- Hot-cold showers: Upon taking a shower, the last few minutes make the water slightly hotter, and for the last 30-60 seconds turn off all hot water and finish with cold water. Any and all cold-water immersion will stimulate the Vagus Nerve
- Conscious belly breath: Deep diaphragmatic breathing will stimulate the Vagus nerve. Incorporating a breath routine daily will dramatically support the Vagus nerve and treat long term chronic symptoms.
- Taking time for self-care and relaxation: most of us are on the “go” for the majority of the day. Taking daily time for space, reflection, journaling, meditating, singing, prayer, exercise, reading, etc. can all stimulate the Vagus nerve.
- Connection and laughter: gatherings with family, social interactions, laughter; any and all types of connection and feelings of belonging and joy will stimulate the Vagus nerve.
In a hyper-stressed world, knowledge and supportive treatment of this important nerve is vital long-term health and well-being. Treatment can start at home. With consistency and patience, there will be changes. What could be more empowering!