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The wonders of the Vagus Nerve

If you want to optimise your calm, connection, health, wellbeing and sense of comfort, it’s worth getting to know more about your vagus nerve.

When I first got interested in the vagus nerve ten years ago, much of the  information available referred to a long wandering nerve that comes from the brain and travels into the body. The horse racing industry recognised its importance.

When race horse trainers want to buy a potential champion to train, they generally take a vet to check the yearling for soundness, conformation, injuries or problems, and look at its heart rate variability (HRV).

HRV to refers to the small but significant variation that occurs in the heart rate when you breathe in compared with when you breathe out. As you breathe in your heart rate will increase and as you breathe out your heart rate slows. This difference is called the HRV.

Your HRV is a sign of the tone or health of your vagus nerve – or vagal tone. A higher value indicates a stronger vagus nerve. If the vagal tone is high then a race horse will be more capable of training, more stress tolerant, less prone to injury, healthier and will probably gallop faster. Just what the race horse trainer needs.

If you google the vagus nerve today, you might be overwhelmed by the amount of information about it and how and why to improve it.

The vagus nerve is one of the important governing systems in the body. So if you don’t know about it, I’m glad you’re reading this and hopefully it might be the start of your journey to discover treasure.

If you haven’t heard of the vagus nerve maybe you have heard of its counterpart, the “fight-flight” or sympathetic response also known as the stress response. The fight-flight or sympathetic response is vital for our survival and allowed our ancestors to find food, escape danger, and reproduce. We have descended from people who had a well developed fight-flight response which helped them survive.

The sympathetic system or fight-flight response mobilises us for action and survival. It increases our heart rate, activates blood flow to muscles, prepares us to run or fight, reduces digestion and reproductive function and floods the body with cortisol and adrenalin. Activating the sympathetic system creates a feeling of stress, threat and anxiety.

Together, the fight-flight response, or sympathetic system, and the vagus nerve, make up the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system governs all the functions of the body that keep us alive: heart rate, breathing, digestion, organ function, hormone balance, the immune system, healing, fertility and reproduction, temperature regulation, our gut sense or intuition, our feeling of danger or comfort, our connection with others, and our general wellbeing.

No small matter at all.

In contrast to the activation of the fight/flight response,  the vagus nerve does just about the opposite, plus more.

If you want to recover from exertion, relax from stress, have healthy gut function, allow your immune system to do its best repair work, be fertile and reproduce, have your organ systems functioning well, breathe deeply, recover from illness or injury, feel safe, calm and connected to others  and think clearly and creatively, then the stronger and healthier your vagus nerve the better.

The vagus nerve has  two branches – ventral and dorsal – and they have different functions.

The ventral branch of the vagus helps you repair, rest, digest, reproduce, recover and connect. It helps modify and balance the fight-flight activation. The ventral vagus creates a sense of calm, ease, comfort and wellbeing.

If you are suffering overwhelming, extreme or life threatening stress, the other branch of the vagus nerve, the dorsal, activates. The dorsal branch of the vagus will shut your system down. It causes fainting, blackouts, disassociation, numbness, the “feigned death” of the hare caught in the lion’s mouth. When all seems lost your nervous system can do a system shut down to conserve energy and hopefully keep reserves in order to make an escape later.

So what is the treasure of the vagus?

We can all benefit from feeling calm, more connected, well rested and comfortable.

So the treasure is in the healthy functioning of ventral branch of the vagus and learning to access and cultivate what can be called the "ventral vagal state".

Feeling safe, calm and connected with a sense of wellbeing is more likely to be possible if your vagus nerve is healthy.

There has been an explosion in information on how to support your vagus nerve and I have listed a few ideas below for you to try out. This is not a quick fix, it's about making these practices part of each day, bringing them into your life alongside all the other things you might do to keep yourself feeling healthy and well.

There are artificial ways to stimulate the vagus by using electronic devices and implants, but nature and ancient wisdom have many lessons to offer us right at our fingertips and for no expense.

Connecting with your vagus nerve is easier than you may imagine. Here are some places to start, try them out, trust what feels right or resonates for you...

1. Sing, hum, chant and use your voice in creative ways.

2. Smile, make funny faces, laugh

3. Gargle

4. Massage your neck and shoulders, relax your neck

5. Breathe deeply into your rib cage and diaphragm

6. Exhale with an audible sound or sigh

7. Look after your gut health, take probiotics or make your own

8. Massage your belly in a clockwise direction, up the right side, down the left

9. Stay well hydrated, eat fresh fruit and veggies, avoid processed food

10. Walk regularly, exercise and move

11. Stretch and open the front of your hips, belly and chest, breathe deeply

12. Find spots in nature that relax and inspire you

13. Rest on the floor in corrective rest – feet standing, hips and knees bent

14. Avoid stress, have a good sleep routine and get enough rest

Let me know if you have other ideas to add to this list.

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