It never ceases to surprise me how many important functions of the body are not common knowledge. In all fairness, the inner workings of our bodies tend to be a "hands-off" production (until and unless things shift in an unwanted direction.) I'll be the first to admit that despite my own medical training and voracious consumption of health and wellness texts, I don't recall much discussion or specialized education involving the vagus nerve, and yet, it is highly responsible for many critical functions in our bodies.
Vagus Nerve? Do I have one, too?!
You sure do! We all do. In fact, the vagus nerve is split into two branches (making up the dorsal and ventral vagal nerve pathways), so one could argue that we actually have two. Fancy!
Well, what in the world is it?
I thought you'd never ask! The vagus nerve (aka the 10th cranial nerve) is the longest nerve in your body. It gets it's name from Latin roots meaning "wandering, rambling, vague," as it originates in the brain stem and wanders along a lengthy internal path ending in the lower abdomen. Along it's meandering route, it affects many of our vital physical activities, such as:
Detoxification in the Liver & Kidneys
Breath rate & depth
Production of saliva & tears
Pupil dilation & constriction
And so much more!
You may notice these are all functions that happen automatically, without conscious effort, as they are part of the autonomic nervous system that strives to regulate homeostasis (balance) in the body. For the vagus nerve to support and help maintain a stable environment, it must be kept in excellent operating condition. A poorly toned vagus nerve can lead to many unwelcome health deficits, such as dysfunctional breathing & airways, chronic inflammation, autoimmune conditions, dysfunctional sleep, chronic stress, dysfunctional heart rate & liver detoxification, and potentially social deficits. It's easy to see why we might be interested in keeping this part of our body in optimal shape.
What can I do to keep my vagus nerve in top condition?
There are so many things you can participate in to activate your vagus nerve and improve your vagal tone (higher tone = more beneficial.) Here is a list to get you started:
Breathing exercises, with a focus on the slow, rhythmic in and out flow of air
Humming or chanting (crazy, but true.. the sound vibrations activate the nerves close to the brain stem, producing a positive trickle-down effect through the vagus nerve)
Gargling and gentle gag reflex practices to "wake up" the nerves instantly
Yoga, Pilates & Movement
Meditation & Mindfulness
Laughing & Social Connection
Sunlight & Supplements
Many wellness professionals can support and help improve the health of your vagus nerve, including massage therapists, reflexologists, chiropractors and of course, acupuncturists! Acupuncture can influence the vagus nerve quite directly by stimulating the auricular branch of the nerve on the surface of the ear. There is a tremendous amount of quality scientific research into the positive outcomes of needling the ear for a host of imbalances, both physical, mental and emotional. This is due in part to the placement of the vagus nerve pathway through the ear.
I hope this post serves as a useful introduction to the mysterious and powerful vagus nerve. And even if this isn't your first go-round on the topic, I trust this was a simple refresher with some valuable takeaways!
If you are looking for more vagus nerve support, reach out to me at Bliss Body - or check in with a local trusted acupuncturist who can offer support on your healing journey. I offer vagus nerve-specific ear acupuncture in my Acton, Massachusetts office, using tiny needles or e-stim (read: no needles.) Another needle-free option is my Dolphin Vagal Nerve Stimulation Treatment.
I also recommend checking out Dr. Navaz Habib's book titled Activate Your Vagus Nerve: Unleash Your Body's Natural Ability to Heal. This book delves a bit more deeply into the concepts shared in this post and even offers sample daily practice schedules to activate your vagus nerve regularly.
May you be happy and healthy always!
Habib, N. (2019). Activate your vagus nerve: Unleash your body's natural ability to overcome gut sensitivities, inflammation, brain fog, autoimmunity, anxiety, depression. Ulysses Press.
FaShong, B. (2022). Natural health: Ultimate guide to pain & stress management (21st ed.). Natural Health.