“The biggest part of this whole exploration of the vagus nerve is being able to educate others on it and learning about myself in the process.” – Janet Farquharson
A yogi, sound healer, and passionate educator are just some of the hats that Janet wears. She hosts workshops, sound healing events, wellness retreats, and teaches yoga to an array of students. I recently attended her workshop about the vagus nerve and was really intrigued by what I discovered. Her workshop was jam-packed with a blend of theory and practice, comprising a variety of tools that can help you stimulate the vagus nerve. I sat down with her over a zoom call one Wednesday morning to pick her brain. On the screen, I noticed she was firmly placed on her yoga mat, like a true yogini, as I waited in anticipation. It goes without saying that I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Get ready for a crash course on the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
Vagus. Nerve. Now those are two words you rarely see next to each other, Janet jokingly tells me. In case you’re wondering, it bears no resemblance to the city of Vegas, as you may have gathered from the spelling. I learned quite early on in our conversation that what happens in the vagus nerve certainly doesn’t stay there. On the contrary, the vagus nerve branches out from the brain and travels far and wide to different parts of the body. The word “vagus” gets its peculiar name from the Latin translation, meaning “wandering”.
The anatomy of the vagus nerve
“The vagus nerve is a long cranial nerve that starts in your brain and goes all the way to the major organs of your body: transmitting messages and affecting the functioning of those organs,” Janet explains. This wanderer’s nerve is the tenth cranial nerve pair in the body; traveling throughout the body from the brain right down to the abdomen.
The vagus nerve “carries an extensive range of signals from [the] digestive system and organs to the brain and vice versa,” according to a recent research article. I remain stunned about just how little knowledge I knew about the anatomy of the vagus nerve, given that I learned about the nervous system in biology in high school. But what I wondered more about is whether people knew just how much the vagus nerve plays a role in their health. Before we get into the nitty-gritties, I thought it best to ask Janet about the nervous system.
How does the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system relate to the vagus nerve?
Janet breaks down the autonomic nervous system. There are two branches that make up the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Pardon the jargon! Allow me to put this into context as we explore in detail how these two branches of our nervous system affect our bodies.
What is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)?
SNS is a major component of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear are a few signs that you’re operating in your SNS. In other words, your SNS is activated in stressful events. The SNS sends messages to your organs via your autonomic nervous system to keep you out of danger. You may experience these through changes in your heart rate, breath, sweating, and/or other automatic body responses. In short, we need our SNS to help us survive.
What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)?
PNS is the other division of the autonomic nervous system. It works in a synchronic dance with the SNS. The PNS controls the rest-and-digest response, which is responsible for helping the body relax. The PNS allows our bodies to slow down while also prompting a host of bodily reactions: a decrease in heart rate, breath, an increase in digestion, and more. PNS plays an important role in the autonomic nervous system — regulating the body from fight or flight to rest and digest.
“Our nervous system is such an essential part of our bodies that we really have to keep in balance. Ideally, you want to be in a state of homeostasis where you’re sometimes in your PNS and sometimes in your SNS,” says Janet. She mentions that we’re mostly in our SNS because of our fast-paced lives, meaning that we’re operating more from our stress response than our relaxation response. One research paper confirms, “…many people have an underactive parasympathetic nervous system and an overactive sympathetic nervous system.”
Janet further explains that when we’re too much in our SNS, it throws us out of balance where there is no space for the parasympathetic to function. Research also shows that an overactive sympathetic nervous system correlates with cardiovascular diseases and job stress. In a world where people are living with incessant stress, it’s vital that we’re all able to make that switch over from SNS to PNS.
Let’s tie everything together.
What do the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system have to do with the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve “represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system.” In other words, the vagus nerve supports and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax. “All the different functions involved with the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system are about transmitting messages from the brain to the organs, and the organs to the brain,” says Janet. The vagus nerve sends messages to our body to say calm down, relax, and/or to slow down to help the body function properly.
The vagus nerve works with the body to make sure we’re not lingering too much in our sympathetic nervous system. Intelligently, it functions to curb the parasympathetic activity. “If your parasympathetic nervous system is out, then everything is going to be out of balance. Your physical state will affect your mental, will then affect your emotional, and so on,” Janet says. At SolaVieve, we are always looking at how our health dimensions affect each other, so it certainly makes sense that the vagus nerve can impact our health in this manner.
What are some major functions of the vagus nerve?
This is when it gets really juicy, so stay with me as we uncover more about this mysterious cranial nerve. “The vagus nerve is like a two-way communication channel between the brain to the organs and the organs to the brain,” Janet says.
The vagus nerve is made up of a ratio of 80% afferent fibers and 20% efferent fibers. The afferent fibers send messages from the brain to the body, while the efferent fibers carry information from the body to the brain.
The vagus nerve manages an astounding array of functions within our bodies — from communicating messages between our brain and our organs, to regulating our digestion.
Let’s take a closer look at the functions of the vagus nerve:
- It carries information to the brain about the liver, heart, lungs, and gut. It also functions as a mediator, sending sensory information from the body to the brain.
- It helps in inflammatory processes regulating metabolic homeostasis. This means that the vagus nerve assists to control the heart rate, gastrointestinal motion, glucose production, pancreatic endocrine and exocrine secretion, and more. The vagus nerve can sense what is called “peripheral inflammatory molecules,” which play a role in communicating between the brain and immune system — essential for controlling inflammation. A significant body of evidence suggests that the vagus nerve helps the body suppress inflammation.
- It plays a vital role in the brain-to-gut-axis (communication between the brain and gastrointestinal tract). This complex nerve can transmit information about the gut to the central nervous system.
- Another significant function of the vagus nerve is its involvement with the parasympathetic nervous system, making up about 75% of the PNS. It governs the regulation of our internal organs; managing our mood, our immune system, our heart rate, our breathing rate, our digestion, and more.
- And finally, it is responsible for a plethora of involuntary body reflexes that you may recognize, consisting of (but not limited to): swallowing, vomiting, sneezing, sweating, secretion of saliva, releasing tears, and speech muscle movements.
Is vagal tone really something we need to be thinking about?
Yes! Vagal tone is just another way of saying your vagus nerve is fit. Think of the athlete analogy. You know how athletes exercise and train to get fit? Well, the same applies when you exercise your vagus nerve. Yes, you can actually tone your vagus nerve! Who would have guessed?
Also, it turns out you can train your vagus nerve to attain a higher vagal tone, Janet elaborates. “When you have a higher vagal tone, in general, it means that your body is able to drop back into that relaxation state faster when it’s been in the sympathetic state. It means that your vagus nerve is more toned, or fit,” she says. What’s more is that we can measure the vagal tone using a variety of tools with a heart rate variability (HRV) metric. The HRV can measure your heart rate, and detect your stress response and recovery, and general wellbeing. Good health, low stress, and low expectancy of diseases are associated with high HRV. In short, higher vagal tone.
This is what the research can tell us about vagal tone:
- Low vagal tone is associated with stress and chronic inflammation, affecting the gastrointestinal tract and microbiota. This may lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
If these words sound like utter gibberish to you, don’t fret, here’s a quick crash course for you:
The gastrointestinal tract forms part of your digestive system. It starts in a familiar location in our bodies: our mouth. It’s where all our food and liquid travel — from the mouth, throat, stomach, small and large intestine, rectum, and finally to the anus.
Microbiota (not to be confused with microbiome) is the population of micro-organisms existing in a particular environment.
Let’s get back to it, shall we? Where were we? Ah yes, vagal tone.
- A high vagal tone, however, is associated with physical endurance and longevity. In one study, participants took part in loving-kindness meditation. These participants were so impacted by the meditation, it promoted positive feelings towards themselves and their social connection — these correlate with better health and high vagal tone.
How can we stimulate the vagus nerve?
Janet explains that yoga isn’t for everyone, but there are other ways for all of us to stimulate the vagus nerve that have nothing to do with yoga. So when I ask her for other ways, she responds with a simple answer: smiling.
“I would say smiling is for everyone. Even if you’re faking your smile, it still releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin,” Janet says. In one study, participants were asked to do two stressful activities while holding chopsticks in their mouths. Half of the participants were asked to smile while the other half of the group were given no instructions to smile. They found that the smiling group had lower heart rates and overall, a better response to stress as opposed to the group that didn’t smile.
Actionable tip: Smile at a stranger, even if they don’t smile back.
“When you smile or laugh, you are also activating certain muscles in your face and at the back of your throat that are linked to the vagus nerve,” Janet says, demonstrating with a laugh — “ha ha ha.” Research shows that laughter may improve mood and heart rate variability.
Actionable tip: Giggle your way into a better mood. There’s no harm, right?
Vibration and sound
“Singing, chanting, humming, gargling, yawning, and buzzing bee breath stimulate the vagus nerve with vibration and sound.” When we sing, it enables us to slow down our breathing, affecting our heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve.
Actionable tip: Sing your heart out in the shower, with your friends, or try the ambitious approach of starting an acapella group. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
“The cold water swim, also known as the diving reflex, helps activate the vagus nerve, whether that’s splashing cold water on your face, swimming, or doing the Wim Hof Ice challenge,” Janet explains. One study revealed that cold immersion can help stimulate the vagus nerve by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Actionable tip: Try taking a cold shower every morning for one minute.
“The healthier you can keep your microbiome, the happier the space is for the neurons to live in — for them to do their job for them by sending messages to the brain.” We can keep our gut healthy by ingesting fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, or simply taking a probiotic supplement. A diet high in probiotics is the key to a healthy gut.
Actionable tip: Eat more fermented foods to keep your gut happy.
Massage and reflexology
“When you’re getting a massage, certain muscles are being stimulated, along with the vagus nerve,” Janet says. One study suggests that massage therapy can stimulate the vagus nerve. Foot reflexology is also a relaxing therapy that has been demonstrated to increase vagal tone.
Actionable tip: Give yourself some love by giving yourself a foot rub.
“Different types of yoga serve different purposes. For the vagus nerve we’re looking for cooling and calming practices, so slower yoga, like yin and kundalini yoga, are soothing for the nervous system,” Janet tells us. Research shows that certain yoga practices increase the vagal tone and may lead to better coping skills, cognitive abilities, and better mood. What’s more is that keeping a consistent yoga practice can increase your vagal tone, which has numerous health benefits.
Actionable tip: Opt for slow yoga routines when you need to relax.
“Breathwork, deep belly breaths, alternate nostril breathing, savasana, or yoga nidra all help the body relax,” Janet says. Many yoga practices include synchronizing breath with movement, and Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) is no exception. SKY has many variations of breathing patterns: slow, steady, and rapid. One research article suggests that SKY can help with stress management, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and more. Another article confirms that SKY activates the PNS, helping the body rest in relaxation mode.
Janet’s final word of advice: Breathe.
The vagus nerve shows us just how intricate and intelligent our bodies truly are. There’s so much more to discover about our bodies, and we needn’t go too far to find it. Are you curious about toning your vagus nerve? Try experimenting with one of Janet’s tips — your body and mind will thank you for it.