This nerve is pretty incredible and is absolutely deserving of all the recent attention it’s been getting.
Why? Let us tell you. Get to know the vagus nerve below.
Known aliases: vagal nerves, wanderer nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, extending from the brainstem, through the neck and chest, down to the belly and pelvic floor. It carries signals from the brain to organs and from organs to the brain.
The vagus nerve plays a huge role in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It actually makes up 75% of its nerve fibers. This system, along with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), is part of the larger autonomic nervous system (ANS), which oversees our unconscious functions, like heart rate, digestion, and sexual arousal.
What does the vagus nerve do?
It is connected to every system in the body and provides a channel for all of our sensory information and tension receptors. So the answer is: a lot.
But for the sake of short attention spans, we’re just going to touch on a few areas where it has a lot of impact—stress levels, the gut, and sex.
Ways to tone your vagus nerve
Because this nerve does so much, it’s important to keep it toiiight. Or, in more formal language, toned. Here are three ways to stimulate and tone the vagus nerve:
1. Slow, controlled belly breathing
Like, really slow—about six breaths per minute is the sweet spot. Inhale through your nose into your chest and then into your belly before slowly exhaling out your mouth.
2. Cold exposure
This is a great way to stimulate your vagus nerve when you need to calm the eff down immediately. Some ways to do this:
- Splash cold water onto your face.
- Hold your breath and submerge your face in a bowl of cold water.
- Hold a soft ice pack over your eyes.
- Drink ice-cold water.
- Take a cold shower.
3. Singing, humming, or even gargling
Since the vagus nerve is attached to the back of the throat near the vocal cords, these can be effective ways to stimulate and tone it.
The vagus nerve and stress
The vagus nerve helps you get out of fight-or-flight mode.
When you’re in a stressful situation, your SNS stimulates your fight-or-flight response. It doesn’t really know the difference between “just sent a risky text to my crush” stress and “my life is literally in danger” stress. It just sets off alarm bells.
Kinda dramatic, but okay.
In the olden days when we were cavemen, there was a very obvious difference between “threat is here” and “threat is gone,” so it was very obvious when the vagus nerve should step in to chill everything out. But nowadays, with so many modern world stressors constantly hurtling toward us, the perceived threat lingers. And we can stay in this mode way (way way) longer than is good for us.
Some ways to stimulate the vagus nerve into action, like these, can help reduce stress and anxiety quickly.
The vagus nerve and the gut
There’s a “second brain” inside your gut, and it’s called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which controls all things digestion. The vagus nerve is the main line of communication between the ENS and the brain. And when there’s irritation in the GI system—like with IBS, constipation, or diarrhea—research has found evidence that the ENS sends signals to the brain that can trigger mood changes.
This is important because we used to think that mood disorders like anxiety and depression affected the gut, causing bowel disorders. But actually, it’s likely the opposite way around, and those signals are going from the ENS to the brain by way of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve also acts as a sort of ambassador for the brain, overseeing certain reflexes in the gut without direct input from the brain.
There are four nerve pathways by which women can experience orgasm and, you guessed it, the vagus nerve is one of them. Research has shown that the vagus nerve plays an important role in vaginal orgasms when the cervix and/or uterus are stimulated.
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