Mags Matthews: Vagus, baby, vagus
Relaxation, orgasm, satiation after eating, inflammation reduction, emotional bonding; sounds like the latest impossible wonder drug? It’s not a drug! What all these have in common is they are all regulated by the vagus nerve. This long nerve is named after its vagabond or “wandering” nature as the vagus nerve connects to every organ from the neck down (except for the adrenal glands). Most people are familiar with the fight-flight-or-freeze system also known as the sympathetic nervous system, characterized by adrenaline. While the sympathetic nervous system ramps you up with adrenaline, the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system tell the body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. The vagus nerve is our tenth Cranial Nerve, primarily responsible for the parasympathetic nervous system and is an information superhighway. It starts at the brain and carries information from and to the brain to our organs and controls their response in time of rest and digestion.
Our parasympathetic nervous system, also known as our rest-and-digest system, is responsible for controlling the mood, digestion, immune response and cardiovascular activity. The long reaching tendrils from the vagus act like wires to activate our organs to release vasopressin, prolactin, oxytocin and other hormones. With the vagus, these hormones regulate heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and improve relaxation, communication and bonding.
The vagus both helps digestion and is stimulated by eating. Though if you are eating in stress/fight/flight, it is impossible to nourish your parasympathetic nervous system. Recent research shows promise for activating the vagus nerve to reduce inflammation throughout the body; and treating both gastrointestinal and psychiatric disorders including inflammatory bowel disease, anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
The vagus nerve is responsible for your “gut feelings” that something is good or bad. It’s a primary communicator from the gut to the brain (about 80% of the fibers) and vice versa with about 20% of the fibers. It communicates information from your gut microbiome (the bacteria in your gut) to your brain, known as the Gut-Brain Axis. Recent research shows strong correlations between healthy gut microbiome AND healthy social engagement as protective against cardiac disease, dementia, alzheimers and obesity. Can the primary connection be the vagus nerve?
The social connection piece of the vagus nerve has been getting lots of attention recently. The “polyvagal theory,” first described by Dr. Stephen Porges, suggests that the vagus nerve can offer an alternative to fight-flight and rest-digest. Instead the “social engagement system“ describes a playful mixture of activation and calming that helps us navigate relationships and our sense of self. It suggests that we learn to regulate our emotions as babies only in conjunction with another person’s vagus nerve. The vagus engages our attention to motion, emotion, and communication; and controls the muscles you use to swallow, speak, and immune response.
How can we nourish and enhance the activity of the vagus nerve? So many cultures use breath as a way to normalize mood and find calm. Deep breathing with the exhale longer than the inhale can stimulate vagal tone. Diaphragmatic aka deep belly breathing expands the lower lobes of the lungs where more oxygen exchange happens. Often people can get into habits of shortened chest breathing when trying to “stand up tall” or perpetually holding their abdominal muscles tight. Watch a baby, or your dog or cat breathe, they are natural belly breathers, Take a moment with me and take four diaphragmatic breaths, allowing your abdomen and rib cage to expand like an umbrella in all directions. Try inhaling for four counts and exhaling for eight counts.
Cardiovascular exercise for 20 minutes a day (again enhancing it w/ abdominal breathing); snuggling, or petting your favorite animal all have calming effects and enhance vagus nerve activity. Massage your abdomen, or enjoy massage to any part of your body. Eat and savor a delicious meal alone, or with loved ones. Enjoy an orgasm. Call a loved one you feel you can be your true self with. In this time of a global pandemic and physical distancing, our social networks are more important than ever in maintaining our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Aside from these, physical activity to stretch and move your upper back and spine may help with mobility and nourishment to the vagus nerve as it travels its long path to and from each organ. Flexibility of the thoracic spine and neck may help you breathe as well as stimulate the spinal nerve to your organs as well. Check in with your physician or physical therapist to see what is safe and right for you. For video tips and links for exercises and self care for the vagus nerve, please see http://www.fitforlifeNCPT.com/vagusarticle.
Move Better, Live Better
“Mags” Matthews, PT, MPT, CAPP-OB co-owner with Corey Vanderwouw, PT and Ingo Zirpins, PT of Fit For Life Physical Therapy, a full service rehabilitation and wellness clinic specializing in orthopedics, geriatrics, neurological and pelvic health.
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