The Vagus Nerve
Updated: May 9, 2022
The vagus nerve, also referred to as the 10th Cranial Nerve, extends from the brain stem down into the thorax and abdomen, migrating all the way down to the reproductive organs. It is involved in heart function, blood pressure, gastro-intestinal tract activity, control of the throat and larynx, tastebud function, ocular innervation, skin response, not to mention liver, gall bladder, kidney, spleen and sexual function. It is the key player in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is our autonomic reflex branch often referred to as "rest and digest". The vagus nerve functions as a feedback and feedforward pathway between our organs and brain -- it is the vital conduit in what is known as the gut-brain axis. This nerve is unique in that it controls a wide range of motor, sensory and metabolic functions. Signals, often anti-inflammatory, are sent both ways to influence our reflexes, metabolism and state of being. Seratonin is one such substance regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system -- the effects of which are well known in human behaviour. The other branch of our autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system: otherwise known as "fight or flight" mode. Although we need both branches to function, all too often we find ourselves in fight/fright overload and seldom give our nervous system a chance to rest and reboot. This is therefore the root of many of the common health issues of our day: anxiety, depression, heart disease, gastro-intestinal dysfunction, sleep disorders, brain fog and sexual dysfunction.
Stimulating the vagus nerve can therefore be a useful starting point in treating many difficult issues. Searching the internet there are a multitude of mechanical gadgets available to do this. However some of the most effective techniques involve breathing and meditation. Thus the good news is that relief and wellness are readily available to all of us. Since the vagus nerve covers everything from the mouth to the pelvic floor (not to mention the lungs along the way), mindful breathing is the gateway to increasing vagal tone. In his book Return to Life, Joseph Pilates espoused: "long deep breaths to expand the upper chest to capacity while drawing the abdomen in, holding the breath for a short time, then exhaling and always trying very hard to 'squeeze' every atom of air from the lungs. " You can liken this to squeezing out a sponge so thoroughly that air/liquid automatically rushes in to fill the void once the sponge is released. In this way your lungs breathe you rather than you labour to breathe your lungs. The parasympathetic rescue mission is now underway. Your diaphragm and psoas muscle which have been clamped down in fright or flight mode will begin to release, and all your "happy" neurotransmitters will bring homeostasis back to a stressed out system. Although Joseph Pilates never mentions the vagus nerve specifically, he recognised that optimal development is engineered from the inside out. His system places a strong emphasis on core work. It promotes breath work utilising the entire abdominal wall and diaphragm. Moreover the breath constantly drives the movements, but at the same time bodily movement encourages the breath to work deeper. This exactly mirrors the feedback/feedforward functionality of the vagus nerve. There is harmony of balance, coordination, power and flexibility alongside the union of mind and body through the breath. The result is better strength, vitality, and resilience. “...so too is the proper functioning of your own body the direct result of the assembled Contrology exercises that produce a harmonious structure we term physical fitness reflecting itself in a coordinated and balanced tripart unity of body, mind, and spirit. (Joseph Pilates)