The vagus nerve is one of twelve pairs of nerves in the body that link the brain with other areas of the body. These are known as cranial nerves.
Some of these nerves send sensory information that provides information about smells, sights, tastes, and sounds to the brain. Others that control motor function are in charge of movement of muscles and the function of specific glands.
Interestingly, the vagus nerve has both sensory and motor functions.
Function of the Vagus Nerve
You’ve likely heard of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your fight or flight response while the parasympathetic nervous system controls functions relating to resting and digestion.
Your autonomic nervous system is comprised of these two systems and it’s responsible for all of the involuntary activities in the body.
The vagus nerve is a part of the autonomic nervous system. It plays a crucial role in a multitude of functions, including digestion, blood pressure, mood, heart rate, breathing, saliva production, taste, speech, urine output, immunity, and skin and muscle sensations.
Where Is the Vagus Nerve Located?
The name vagus comes from the Latin for “wandering.” As the longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve wanders from your brain all the way to your large intestine. The right side stays on the right side of the body and the left side on the left. In both cases, it’s not a direct route though.
In fact, it takes a rather circuitous course through your body moving from the medulla oblongata in your lower brainstem and then connecting with the neck, chest, heart, lungs, and digestive tract as it winds its way downward.
Along the way, it attends to sensory functions including supplying somatic sensation information for the skin behind the ear and certain parts of the throat, as well as providing visceral sensation information for the heart, lungs, trachea, larynx, esophagus, and a sizable part of the digestive tract. It also plays a minor role in providing the sensation of taste near the root of the tongue.
Meanwhile, on the motor functions side, it serves to stimulate muscles in the larynx, pharynx, soft palate, and the heart (in order to lower resting heart rate). It also stimulates involuntary contractions in the digestive tract.
So What Does This All Mean?
You may be wondering why we’re providing this anatomy lesson on the vagus nerve.
If you struggle with high levels of stress and anxiety (and who among us doesn’t these days?), then you’ll benefit from knowing about this important cranial nerve.
As we mentioned above, the vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system. But its real alliance lies with the parasympathetic side. In fact, it acts to counterbalance the fight or flight system of the sympathetic nervous system.
It communicates directly with the diaphragm to activate deeper breathing and encourage relaxation. It also lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, it sends anti-inflammatory signals to other parts of the body to help control inflammation. Such inflammation can trigger all sorts of health problems.
Finally, the vagus nerve is crucial for managing fear. That long stretch between the brain and gut is linked with anxiety, stress, and fear. The vague nerve sends signals that allow us to recover from scary or stressful situations.
Protecting Your Vagus Nerve
There are myriad ways to keep the nervous system, and the vagus nerve specifically, healthy. These include a healthy diet, taking probiotics and omega-3s, massage, exercise, and even chanting, laughing, and exposure to cold.
But two of the most effective ways to maintain vagus nerve health are meditation and yoga. Meditation stimulates it and increases vagal tone to boost positive emotions and feelings of goodwill. In addition, meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity.
And the deep breathing that is integral to yoga also stimulates your vagus nerve. It reduces anxiety and activates the vagus nerve to increase activity in the parasympathetic system. The average person takes ten to fourteen breaths each minute. But by focusing on taking only six to eight deep diaphragmatic breaths per minute, you’re stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
Interested In Adding Yoga and Meditation Into Your Life?
We know these are stressful times. And the last thing you need is to figure out a way to fit yet another thing into your schedule.
That’s why we offer yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices on both an in-person basis and virtually. Plus, we bring it right to your place of work so you don’t need to add another commute to your day.
So if you’re curious about how these practices can improve the function of your vagus nerve as well as your overall health, contact us today. There’s always time for self-care.