Updated: Jul 20
(But luckily, you wouldn’t want it to)
The Vagus Nerve, not to be confused with its wildly differing homophone “Vegas,” has arguably become the most in vogue nerve of the body. Unlike Las Vegas, the city of Sin that most certainly stimulates and excites our nervous system, the Vagus Nerve is the primary nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system, and it works to calm our nervous system. The vagus nerve can be stimulated to counteract our “fight or flight” response (ugh hello anxiety) and create a healthy stress response. Vagal nerve activation allows one to experience mental clarity, focus, and interact with the world in a more unflappable manor (sounds nice after living through the past two years). Although it took a global crisis for most of us to recognize our overly sensitized nervous systems and the unnecessary stressed out states we were living in, there is no time like the present to evolve, and become more resilient both mentally and physically through unlocking the potential of the vagus nerve.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The Vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, also known as CN X, and is the largest nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is the longest nerve in the body, and connects the brain to the gastrointestinal tract (GI), heart and lungs. The vagus nerve serves as our “gut-brain connection,” and works as a two lane highway to send information from our gut, lungs, and heart to the brain, and vice versa. Hence the vagus nerve controls our ability to “rest and digest” and controls the rate of acid production in the stomach and gastric emptying. The vagus nerve is also responsible for our “gut feelings” given its connection with our organs and bidirectional communication. Because information regarding gut health is communicated up the vagus nerve to the brain, it is no surprise that individuals with altered gut microbiota, like those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), often report increased rates of anxiety and depression.
Equally as important as its role in the GI tract is the vagus nerve’s contribution to our cardiovascular system. The vagus nerve acts as a breaking mechanism for our heart rate to keep it within normal ranges (60-100 bpm for adults). If the vagus nerve were to be severed, the resting heart rate would be around 100 bpm. In healthy adults, a lower resting heart generally indicates increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, which has been correlated with improved overall feelings of well being, decreased stress, and most importantly, decreased mortality.
Why Do We Care?
If you think about the last time your felt a sudden onset of stress or anxiety your physiological response likely included: an increase in heart rate and respiration rate (quickened, shallow breaths) and a pitting feeling in your stomach (whether that be the inability to empty or the sudden urge to go immediately). Presumably you experienced quickened, racing thoughts and may have felt out of control like someone else was in charge of your body and mind. Sometimes this can almost feel like an out of body experience, and is a terrible sensation to have. This “fight or flight” response is very auspicious if there is true danger- think getting chased by a lion, or escaping a burning building. However, this is not an advantageous response to our day-to-day stresses with work, family, and friends. Our daily stressors are not “dangerous.” They are simply a normal part of life, and should not elicit sympathetic nervous system activity. However many of us live day to day with heightened sympathetic nervous system activity, and an overly sensitized “fight or flight” response that is ready to party at all times. But we don’t have to live in this state. The vagus nerve can be trained (that is we can improve our vagal tone) to activate more readily to improve the stress response, decrease anxiety, and bring us into a state of “rest and digest.”
This is why we care about the vagus nerve.
And if the aforementioned wasn’t enough already, endurance athletes MUST care about their vagus nerves (it will improve your performance!). Studies have shown that increased vagal tone in athletes leads to faster and improved recovery post workout, decreased pain, decreased injury, and enhanced training adaptation. And lucky for us, vagal nerve health can be developed and optimized through a few actionable strategies found below.
How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
Follow the link below to learn effective, and economical strategies for stimulating your vagus nerve to improve your overall physical and mental well being, and race performance.
In summary, we don’t want our nervous systems to look and act like the Vegas Strip on a Saturday night. We have the ability to change our internal state, and control how we respond to stressful situations. We want to channel our vagus nerve to help our nervous system achieve a placcid state- think Caribbean beach with a coconut water in one hand, and a good book in the other.
As always, thank you guys for reading!
Dr. Melissa Kolazyk, PT, DPT, CMTPT