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What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve has been a topic of fascination and thriller all through historical past. In historical instances, Greek and Roman physicians believed that it helped regulate respiratory and management the voice. Within the Center Ages, the vagus nerve was considered a religious channel between the physique and the soul.

The vagus nerve was additionally believed to play a job within the manufacturing of tears, with the time period “vagus” getting used to explain a wandering individual.

It wasn’t till the nineteenth century that the true nature of the vagus nerve started to unfold.

“Scientific research started to supply extra detailed insights into the features of the vagus nerve,” mentioned Megan Donnelly, D.O., lead neurologist and girls’s headache specialist at Novant Well being.

What’s the vagus nerve and what does it do? 

The vagus nerve is split into two fundamental branches — the left and proper vagus nerves — and it travels all the way in which down out of your mind by your neck into your chest and stomach. This nerve is a vital factor of our parasympathetic nervous system, the a part of our mind that, to place it merely, calms issues down.

“Consider the vagus nerve as the principle nerve for relaxation and digestion,” Donnelly mentioned. “It turns down the guts charge and blood stress and causes digestion.”

The vagus nerve additionally regulates respiratory charge and some reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting.

What occurs when the vagus nerve isn’t working proper?

When the vagus nerve isn’t functioning usually — also called irregular vagal tone — your well being can endure in some ways.

A vagus nerve that’s overactive, or too responsive, could cause fainting, decreased coronary heart charge and nausea. An underactive vagus nerve can result in speedy coronary heart charge, decreased digestion and gastroparesis, a situation that retains your abdomen from emptying all the way in which.

Moreover, irregular vagal tone, which is what it’s known as when your vagus nerve isn’t working accurately, could cause:

  • Dizziness
  • Belly ache
  • Acid reflux disorder
  • Issue swallowing
  • Speech issue or hoarseness
  • Lack of urge for food
  • Weight reduction
  • Adjustments in blood stress
  • Migraine assaults
  • Epilepsy
  • Nervousness
  • Despair

An underactive vagus nerve can also be linked to nervousness and melancholy. That’s why stimulation of the vagus nerve is typically used as therapy for these psychological well being situations.

“There are a number of handheld units [on the market],” Donnelly mentioned. “They’re held to the neck space and emit mild electrical pulses.”

Autoimmune situations may additionally be tied to a vagus nerve that isn’t working correctly, though they is perhaps the trigger reasonably than the results of the malfunctioning vagus nerve.

“If something, autoimmune illness can have an effect on nerves all through our physique and the vagus nerve is the largest and the longest,” Donnelly mentioned.

Lengthy Covid, for instance, might set off an autoimmune response, which might have an effect on the vagus nerve.

Does stimulating the vagus nerve assist nervousness?

Activating the vagus nerve has been proven to assist cut back nervousness — not less than within the second of an nervousness flare-up. So, stimulating the vagus nerve throughout say, a panic assault, can assist calm the physique down.

The easiest way to stimulate the vagus nerve, which you’ll’t bodily contact, is by exposing your self to ice-cold temperatures.

“Chilly water immersion has been proven, with some combined outcomes, to reinforce vagal tone and enhance HRV (coronary heart charge variability),” mentioned Sarah-Nicole Bostan, Ph.D., a medical well being psychologist who’s board-certified in biofeedback. “The parasympathetic nervous system shortly kicks in, which ends up in slowed coronary heart charge. This may really feel grounding for an individual experiencing the bodily signs of tension, like racing coronary heart and issue respiratory.”

Ice is a good software to make the vagus nerve kick in. Jennifer Surak-Zammitti, LCSW, a psychotherapist, recommends “icing” as an nervousness coping mechanism to her sufferers.

“After they’re feeling anxious, I’ll inform them to carry and squeeze ice cubes of their hand,” Surak-Zammitti mentioned.

She additionally recommends icing to individuals susceptible to self-harm.

“I inform them to carry an ice dice to their wrists,” Surak-Zammitti mentioned. “It provides them the sensation of one thing on their wrists that they’re craving. It additionally buys them time to get to a different coping ability to get out of the state of affairs [that is] inflicting them to wish to self-harm.”

When you’re feeling anxious, one thing so simple as super-cold air can assist as properly.

“If it’s winter, open a window and let the chilly air hit your face,” mentioned Surak-Zammitti. “It’s extraordinarily calming.”

How will you enhance your vagal nerve tone?

Vagal tone decreases with age (which you’ll’t assist), however you possibly can enhance your bodily exercise. Analysis exhibits that train results in a better and more healthy tone.

“This contains not simply specializing in frequency of train, however step by step rising depth and size of time spent, and ranging the kind of workouts carried out,” Bostan mentioned.

One other solution to get vagal toned: deep respiratory. One current research discovered that simply 5 minutes of sluggish, deep breaths reduces nervousness and will increase vagal tone.

The vagus nerve remains to be mysterious in some methods

Though we perceive extra in regards to the vagus nerve right now, there’s a facet to it that’s nonetheless, properly, obscure. For instance, we don’t know if irregular vagal tone is extra frequent in ladies than in males.

“General, the connection between gender and vagal tone is advanced, and extra analysis is required to completely perceive how these components are associated,” Donnelly mentioned.

Within the meantime, it’s all the time a good suggestion to maneuver extra — particularly as we age. And we must always have in mind, when within the grips of tension, that our moms have been proper all alongside: A chilly compress in your brow truly can assist make all of it higher.

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