Have you ever heard about the importance of your vagus nerve? If not, you’re not alone. One of my client’s asked me if I’d write about this, so after a few days break swimming in a very windy mountain lake in Snowdonia, here’s what I hope is a simple overview that will be helpful to you.
I’ve heard the vagus nerve recently described in this way, which I rather like:
If exercise and diet are like a car, then the vagus nerve is like the wheels on that car: you can work on the body of the car all you want, but without the wheels, it isn’t going to go anywhere very fast.
It’s actually the longest (and in order of importance, the most important) nerve in the body. You actually have two – running down the right- and left-hand side of your body, from neck to throat to chest to belly. Vegas means wandering in Latin, due to the way it wanders through the body.
Your vagus nerve directly informs your oesophagus, heart, lungs, stomach, and gut and possibly even the reproductive organs (but not yet confirmed). Importantly, with regards to the relevance to Breathwork, your vagus nerve helps to regulate your mood and your immune system (which is why Breathwork is great for it). Think of it like a superhighway, running in both directions between your brain and gut, carrying information back and forth, delivering feedback between the two. It also carries our feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. So if your vagus nerve is not toned up, or stimulated regularly, both your brain and gut can miss signals from each other, which may lead to problems.
Breathwork is one very effective way to stimulate your vagus nerve, which makes up 75 percent of your parasympathetic nervous system. I talk a lot about the parasympathetic nervous system in breath workshops and 1-1’s, as well as when taking people out into the forest to experience Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing). It’s the system that puts your body into what’s nicknamed the rest, digest and relax mode. Ideally, we’ll spend about 75/80% of our day hanging out in this balanced bodily state, leaving the other 20/25% for the sympathetic mode, which is our fight or flight response. This helps us to get things done and gets us out of trouble when we need it (responding to danger, for example, and shutting down unnecessary body systems in order to flee, or fight).
The upshot is, that if your vagus nerve isn’t healthy, then your body is more easily lead into states of anxiety. A dysfunctional vagus nerve has been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, headaches, dizziness and fainting, abdominal pain and bloating, poor immune function, acid reflux, irregular heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar imbalances, difficulty swallowing, and vomiting. Yet if it is properly toned, then your heart, breathing, digestion, hormones, immune system, and whole central nervous system can function better. And when you get these systems work optimally, then everything you do to maintain it (as well as get it healthy in the first place), such as Breathwork, spending time in nature, exercising, meditation, eating well - will be even more effective. Other ways to get your vegas nerve in better shape is an ear-and-neck massage, gentle side bends or twists, a deep belly massage, sounding (which I often included in Breathwork sessions), and tapping techniques.
If you have any questions on this at all, please do get in touch.