What Does Your Vagal Nerve Do?
Grace under pressure. The vagal nerve starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears. It travels down each side of the neck, across the chest and down through the abdomen. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering’ and indeed this bundle of nerve fibres roves through the body, networking the brain with the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices. It is made of thousands and thousands of fibres and 80 per cent of them are sensory, meaning that the vagal nerve reports back to your brain what is going on in your organs. The Vagal system regulates the rest, repair and digest functions as well as the fluids in our body.
Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagal nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger. Not all vagal nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagal activity, which means their bodies can relax faster after a stress.
The strength of your vagal response is known as your vagal tone and it can be determined by using an electrocardiogram or HVR ap to measure heart rate. Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagal nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone.
Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. As part of the immune system, inflammation has a useful role helping the body to heal after an injury, for example, but it can damage organs and blood vessels if it persists when it is not needed. One of the vagal nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive.
Latest research shows that Vagal stimulation has a positive response with Rheumatoid Arthritis, all digestive disorders including Crohn’s , IBS, and diverticulitis, autoimmune disorders including M.S., fibromyalgia, Lupus, Chronic Fatigue, PTSD, Epilepsy, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, anxiety attacks and heart arrhythmia.
Vagal Breathing Technique
Vagal Breathing enhances vagal tone, just 5 minutes a day can make a huge difference. 11 mins a day will balance the endocrine system.25 mins a day will balance blood pressure.
Sit comfortably in a warm room or cover yourself with a blanket.
Pick a hand position that feels right.
Close your eyes and observe your natural breath.
Allow your lower belly to expand on the inhale and let your lower belly sink back towards your spine on the exhale. (Continue with this step until it feels easy and natural)
Gently and lightly inhaling through the nose, belly expanding, exhaling through the mouth belly relaxing.
As you inhale through the nose create ujjayi breath or ocean breath by drawing the breath to the back of the sinus cavity.
Exhaling through the mouth with a soft “haaa” sound like you are misting your glasses to clean them.
Creating sound stimulates the Vagal system as does listening to the sound you are making.
Keep the length of the inhale the same and allow the exhale to become longer than the inhale. (this is the key and the short version that can be done during other activities)
At the top of the gentle inhale pause your inhalation for about three seconds. (Breath retention stimulates the Vagal system)
then slowly exhale the breath out through the mouth allowing the exhalation to lengthen as you relax. When you get to the bottom of the exhale coast for a few seconds or as long as what is comfortable. (This time will increase as you relax)
Gently open your eyes 1/10th and focus on a point in front of you on the floor. Try to keep the eyes still.
Continue with the breath pattern.
Close your eyes and return to natural breathing. (This allows the vagal system to reset)
Wait a few minutes before opening your eyes. Notice any changes internally and externally.
With regular Vagal Breathing practice people report being calmer, more focused, healthier, happier, lighter and pain free. This technique can also be done reclining, or propped up on pillows. Reclining version will help people to fall asleep and is particularly effective to fall back asleep after waking during the night.
Come in Monday nights 6:15-7:30 to try our Vagal Restorative class with Erin May.