Did you know that your nervous system controls everything you do? Just think, when you’re walking, thinking, breathing, and feeling your nervous system is in control! Your nervous system is critical to proper functioning and operating optimally on a daily basis! Within your nervous system, you’ll find the Vagus nerve (also called cranial nerve 10) which is one of the largest nerve systems in your body. It’s called the vagus nerve because it wanders like a vagabond, sending out nerve fibres from our brain to all the organs in our body! There are actually two vagus nerves—a left and a right—that start in the brainstem exit through the jugular foramen of the skull and branch down to vital organs such as the heart, lungs, esophagus, digestive tract, reproductive organs, and a host of others.
A Crash Course on the Central Nervous System
It’s important to understand the central nervous system before we can dive into the Vagus Nerve! To give a brief overview, the central nervous system, (which includes the brain and the spinal cord) also includes the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral system itself is comprised of two components:
- The Somatic Nervous System-responsible for sending motor and sensory information to and from the central nervous system. It is also responsible for many voluntary muscle movements and is important in the processing of sensory information that arrives through the senses, including hearing, touch, and sight.
- The Autonomic Nervous System-regulates certain body processes such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing that occur without conscious effort. The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is often described as the “fight-or-flight” system, while the parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest-and-digest” system.
Similar to a brake pedal, the general function of the parasympathetic nervous system is to control homeostasis and the body’s rest-and-digest response. The general action of the sympathetic nervous system is to mobilize the body’s fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, kind of like the gas pedal.
Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight Or Flight):
- speeds up the heart rate
- slows down digestion
- suppresses immune system
Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest and Digest):
- slows down the heart rate
- turns up digestion
- supports immune system function
To be functioning optimally, the body needs to know when to be in either state, depending on what it needs at a particular time. This ensures we can enter a state of arousal when needed, yet can recalibrate to a state of rest when needed as well.
Why is the Vagus Nerve so Important?
Aside from being one of the largest nerve systems in your body, the Vagus nerve (found in the parasympathetic nervous system) has an incredibly important job! Normal body function relies on the health of the vagus nerves and their ability to send and receive signals. Fun fact: 80% of information sent by the vagus nerve is afferent (meaning from the organs to the brain) whereas only 20% is efferent (meaning coming from the brain to the organs) (1)
Your Vagus nerve could be impacting your body more than you know! Some evidence shows that signals from the vagus nerve travelling from the gut to the brain have been linked to modulating mood and distinctive types of fear and anxiety. Ever heard of the term “I had a gut feeling.”? Well, this may explain the science behind that saying. Additionally, keeping your cool under pressure is directly linked to the calming parasympathetic response associated with a healthy vagal tone. It is not surprising, then, that impaired functioning of this nerve can lead to many different conditions and problems.
The Vagus Nerve & Chiropractic Care
Spinal health plays a significant role in directing the health of the vagus nerve. If the spine becomes compromised in its positioning or ability to move freely, the information to and from the vagus nerves become altered. This is why chiropractic adjustments can have such a positive impact on the vagus nerve.
Improving your vagus nerve plays a large role in many other areas as well! Regulating your autonomic nervous system function, lowering chronic disease risk, and decreasing mortality rates are just a few. It’s important to note that within the stressful, fast-paced life we often live these days, chiropractic care appears to increase the healing and calming side of our autonomic nervous system.
The gold standard test used to check the function and efficiency of the vagus nerve comes from Heart Rate Variability (HRV)..HRV measures autonomic vagal nerve activity; higher HRV indicates better output, increased resilience and a healthier person. HRV is a great tool because it assesses nervous system adaptation; the more you can switch back and forth and maintain a balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic sides of the nervous system, the better you will be able to heal, recover and repair. Research is showing that chiropractic adjustment can have a profound impact on HRV. (2) This is why many chiropractors will measure your heart rate variability to measure their patient’s progress when under chiropractic care; to measure and monitor how the body is adapting to the physical environmental stressors.
Tips for Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
It’s a fact that we can’t control every aspect of our environment and the impact it has on our stress levels. What we can do is activate our vagus nerves daily and stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system to help keep us calm and collected. Here are a few ideas for activating your vagus nerve:
- Breathing—A simple way to calm yourself and trigger your parasympathetic state is to try a 1-minute alternate nose-breathing technique. To do this, breathe in through your right nostril with your finger covering your left nostril, then exhale through the left nostril with your finger covering the right nostril. Repeat the same exercise with the left nostril.
- Get Chilly—Cold exposure has been shown to be an effective method in striking a balance with the ANS. The contrast between taking a cold shower or dip in a cold body of water and moving to a warm sauna, for example, can immediately activate the sympathetic nervous system in the short term but has long-term positive effects on the vagus nerve.
- Get Shaking—Singing, humming, and gargling help activate the muscles at the back of the throat, which stimulate the vagus nerve. Gargling water as hard as you can first thing in the morning is an easy way to practice this daily.
- Exercise—Mild to moderate physical activity stimulates the Vagus nerve. This activity can be attenuated by the natural environment. We should use our daily outdoor exercise wisely, soaking up natural environments and taking the time to remove our headphones and taking in the sounds of our surroundings.
- Getting Adjusted—Regular chiropractic care can help balance the autonomic nervous system and improve brain-body communication for better resilience to stress as well as promote overall health and well-being.
If you want to improve your spinal health and nervous system function, visit us at Santé Chiropractic and Wellness Centre! Santé Chiropractic and Wellness Centre has been serving the community of East Ottawa / Orléans for over 25 years. Call or book your appointment online so we can help your body help itself!
(1) Habib, N. (2019). Activate Your Vagus Nerve: Unleash Your Body’s Natural Ability to Heal (1st ed.). Ulysses Press.
(2) Zhang J, Dean D, Nosco D, et al. Effect of Chiropractic Care on Heart Rate Variability and Pain in a Multisite Clinical Study. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 2006;29(4):267-74.