Wandering to Wellness: The Vagus Nerve and our Wellbeing
The vagus nerve.
It’s the longest nerve in the body, but also where Western medicine has come up short. A few years ago, Western medicine admitted it: they know very little about the vagus nerve. Luckily Eastern medicine has understood how critical it is to our health for a very long time.
The vagus nerve lives up to its name—in Latin, “vagus” means “wandering.” And wander it does. The nerve begins in the brain. From there, it traverses the body, moving to points behind our ear lobes before angling down the sides of our throat toward our Adam’s apple area. Sing, hum, chant, and the vibrations of your vocal cords will activate the vagus nerve, increasing Qi, blood, and even nitric oxide.
As the vagus nerve traverses our neck to our lower colon, it carries signals, connecting our brain, heart, and digestive system. An activator and key part of our parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve calms the fight/flight/freeze response of our sympathetic nervous system—and does even more.
In fact, the vagus nerve controls a lot of our body. It impacts:
• Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration
• Immune system response
• Mucus and saliva production
• Skin and muscle sensations
• Urine output
The reach of the vagus nerve partly explains why having a strong vagal tone is critical for health. Its strength signals less inflammation as well as a robust immune system. Vagus nerve damage, however, can lead to everything from blockage in your intestines to feelings of faintness.
Measuring your vagal tone—in other words, your health.
Energy medicine practitioners can test the health of your nervous system by measuring your vagal tone in several ways.
Since the vagus nerve controls heart rate variability (HRV), one way to measure your vagal tone health is through measuring your HRV. This typically involves obtaining a heart monitor or other wearable device—and some mathematics skills.
A simpler way to measure your vagal tone is to look in the mirror, open your mouth, and shine a flashlight on your throat. As you do this, press your tongue down and say ahh. Look at your uvula in the back of your throat. Is it: Off to one side? Or hanging straight down?
If it’s hanging straight down then your vagal tone is strong. In Polyvagal theory, which identifies three nervous system states, this means you’re in the green zone—in other words, you’re in a hybrid state of activation and calming that plays a role in our ability to socially engage. You’re the picture of joy, groundedness, mindfulness, and compassion.
But if it’s off to one side, don’t worry. Yes, according to Polyvagal theory, you may be in the red zone—a mode of fear, anxiety, worry, or rage—but there are exercises you can do to strengthen your tone.
Protecting your vagal nerves
There are many activities that can increase nervous system health, including physical activity, healthy eating, yoga, meditation, and energy medicine.
Some of the simplest—and best—include:
• Sing, Hum, Chant
o Using your voice will activate the muscles in your throat and stimulate your vagus nerve.
• Cold Exposure
o Try putting your face into a bowl of ice-cold water—the more experienced can jump into a cold bathtub—or lake. Acute cold exposure stimulates the vagus nerve.
o Breathe in for 5, hold your breath for 5, breathe out for 5, and then count to 5 and breathe in again. This will help stimulate your vagus nerve and reduce anxiety.
For other exercises, like the peacemaker, which taps into the vagus nerve and helps you channel energy to your organs, visit Energy Girl’s YouTube channel and explore how easy it is to connect your vagus nerve to everything.