As we take a closer look at the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) we begin to understand how it works and how we can support it.
The Autonomic Nervous System or ANS is the part of the nervous system that regulates activities of the internal organs. The ANS is largely autonomous, acting independently of the body’s consciousness and voluntary control. It has three main divisions:
1) Enteric Nervous System (ENS)
2) Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
3) Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
In this blog post, we will be focusing on the PNS and more specifically the Vagus Nerve. But, before we learn all about the Vagus Nerve, we need to at least understand where it all begins:
1) Enteric Nervous System (ENS) also known as the Intrinsic Nervous System
Consists of a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract
2) Sympathetic – Fight, Flight or Freeze Response – Exciting!
There are 8 Cranial Nerves associated with the Sympathetic Nervous System – you might say things like, “I’m Nervous”, or “You’re getting on my nerves”, or “I’m scared”, or “What happens if….”
8 Cranial Nerves make up the Sympathetic Nervous System
Cranial Nerve I – Olfactory Nerve (sense of smell)
Cranial Nerve II – Optic Nerve (sight)
Cranial Nerve IV – Trochlear Nerve (eye movement)
Cranial Nerve V - Trigeminal Nerve (chewing)
Cranial Nerve VI – Abducens Nerve (eye movement)
Cranial Nerve VIII – Vestibulocochlear Nerve (hearing and balance)
Cranial nerve XI – Spinal Accessory Nerve (shoulder elevation and head-turning)
Cranial Nerve XII – Hypoglossal Nerve (tongue movement)
3) Parasympathetic = Calming
There are 4 Cranial Nerves associated with Parasympathetic Nervous System. We often say things like, “I have a gut feeling", or "my intuition is telling me that..."
Also referred to as "The EASE Nerves"
Cranial Nerve III – Ocular Motor (around eyes)
Cranial Nerve VII – Facial (impact facial expressions)
Cranial Nerve IX – Glossopharyngeal - (stimulating parts of the tongue, throat and ears)
Cranial Nerve X – Vagus Nerve is:
the most powerful parasympathetic nerve of all, has a wide distribution inside the body, connecting the core of the brain with the depths of the gut.
the most intellectual partner, creating experiences filled with love, fulfillment and connection.
acts to counterbalance the fight or flight system from the Sympathetic Nervous System side and can trigger a relaxation response in our body.
is a major part of how our bodies and brains function and without it, our bodies wouldn’t be able to do basic tasks, and by stimulating it we can receive powerful health benefits.
Where is the Vagus Nerve?
Vagus means wanderer. Appropriately named, two identical vagus nerves leave the brain at the medula oblongata origin, and travel through the neck, larynx, lungs and into the abdominals; the esophageal plexus, the spleen, kidney, colon, small intestine, stomach and liver.
The vagus nerve serves as the body's superhighway, carrying information between the brain and the internal organs and controlling the body's response in times of rest and relaxation. This large nerve originates in the brain and branches out in multiple directions to the neck and torso, where it's responsible for actions such as carrying sensory information from the skin of the ear, controlling the muscles that you use to swallow and speak and influencing your entire immune system.
By wandering and branching throughout the body, the vagus nerve provides the primary control for the nervous system's parasympathetic division: the rest-and-digest counterpoint to the sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response, the sort yin to the yang. When the body is no longer perceived as under stress, the vagus nerve sends commands that slow heart and breathing rates and increase digestion. In times of stress, body control shifts to the sympathetic system, which produces the opposite effect, the fight, flight or freeze response.
The vagus nerve also carries sensory signals from internal organs back to the brain, enabling the brain to keep track of the organs' actions.
Promoting the Relaxation Response by Stimulating the Vagus Nerve? (See my video at the bottom of this blog)
We don’t always have to let stressful situations negatively impact our minds and bodies. WE can stimulate our vagus nerve to send a message to our bodies that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, pain management, well-being and resilience.
You can learn to use breathing exercises to shift your focus away from stress or pain. The human mind processes one thing at a time. If you focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you're not focused on the stressor.
The moment we anticipate stress in any form, most of us tend to stop breathing and hold our breath. Breath holding activates the fight-flight-freeze response and tends to increase the sensation of pain, stiffness, anxiety, or fear.
How to do Deep Breathing
To practice deep breathing inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth remember to:
Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute).
Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale.
Exhale longer than you inhale. It’s the exhale that triggers the relaxation response.
Additional techniques for stimulating the Vagus Nerve include:
Loud gargling with water
Loud singing will activate our vocal cords, which in turn will stimulate the vagus nerve.
Foot massage: gentle or firm touch can assist in stimulating the vagus nerve.
Cold water face immersion: immerse your forehead, eyes and at least 2/3 of both cheeks into cold water. This elicits the vagus nerve to decrease your heart rate, stimulate the intestines and turn on the immune system.
Eating fiber stimulates vagus nerve to send impulses to the brain to slow the gut movements, making us feel fuller after meals.
Laughter: having a good laugh lifts your mood, boosts your immune system and stimulates the vagus nerve. Find a way to laugh every day. Read funny jokes, watch a funny TV show or Youtube video or spend time with an animated friend.
Paying close attention to your bio rhythms. Your bio rhythms tell you when to eat and when to stop, when to go to sleep and when to wake up refreshed. You need to listen to your bio rhythms, which in turn will support and stimulate your vagus nerve.
NOT multi-tasking! Multi-tasking is something our brains are not very well developed to handle. Instead, make a conscious decision to exercise “mono-tasking” which is doing one task at a time, slowly, methodically and carefully. This promotes healthy vagal tone and a healthy parasympathetic response.
Hug someone! Difficult in these COVID pandemic times, for sure, but when things somewhat normalize, and they will normalize, social connection can also be very effective for igniting that parasympathetic response. It fosters calmness, security and the feeling that you are supported!
Anything we can do that is good for the body, such as exercise, stretching, dancing, yoga, massages, helps to relieve that stressed out, stored up energy.
Strangely enough, standing on your head actually triggers that parasympathetic response. Doing this puts extra pressure on the heart which causes the heart to react differently. It triggers that vagal nerve messaging to the body to calm down and be quiet.
None of these techniques, however, will solve your problem or problems. The purpose behind identifying these techniques is to calm you down, so that you can then, in a level-headed way, solve your problems. If you use these anxiety-reducing techniques as a distraction from your problems or from your anxiety, in the long run, your anxiety is still going to be there. So, it’s really important to identify what is causing your anxiety and be aware of the emotions you are having. What are your emotions trying to tell you? See if you can problem solve through them. If not, and if they are causing you to be distracted and unproductive, seek professional help.
Stimulate the Vagus Nerve with Self- Massage Exercise
When the vagus nerve is balanced, or “toned” it helps to regulate sleep, stress and digestion. There are many rituals designed to support your vagal tone. One of the simplest and most satisfying is self massage – no masseuse required!
The following is an easy exercise to stimulate your vagus nerve for tension-taming!
This simple technique is super soothing and helps you slip into a more relaxed state. Try before bed, or anytime you’re feeling stressed:
1) Begin with two pumps of body oil into the hands
2) Cup your hands to your nose and inhale deeply.
3) Starting at your clavicle, gently massage in an upward motion along the left side of your neck. Repeat on your right side.
4) With two fingers, gently rub behind your ear lobes.
5) Bring your hands to your chest, interlacing your fingers. Move your interlaced fingers behind your head keeping your head straight, but bring your gaze fully to the right. Maintain position until you experience a sensation of swallowing, a sigh or a yawn. Then repeat on the left side.