Want to Feel Better Immediately? Go to Vagus.

No, not that Vegas; actually, that’s not a bad idea.  But, THE vagus. 

Probably, the most important of the twelve cranial nerves is the vagus.  Covering a distance of about six miles, it’s actually longer than the Vegas strip, connecting sensory signals to and from the heart, lungs, stomach, and our entire digestive system.

In Vegas, we could go from stress, anger, and anxiety to happy and relaxed in the same night.  Well, the vagus is kind of like that too, as it is regulated by our autonomic nervous system, in which there are two divisions: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic. 

The sympathetic system deals with our fight or flight response to stressful or life-threatening situations, like being down $2k at the blackjack table. 

The parasympathetic system deals with relaxation and a sense of calm.  It slows our heartrate while increasing intestinal and gland activity and promotes overall well-being.  It’ like a day in the spa at the Bellagio.  I highly recommend the cold plunge pool.

The problem is that too many of us are in a perpetual underlying sympathetic state.  Especially in times like these where anxiety is heightened, fear, and uncertainty.  Our sympathetic system is on overdrive and it has negative effects on our immune system, among other symptoms and ailments, like a rash, headaches, joint pain, insomnia, depression, constipation …

If you do Vegas right, a lot of that can be cured, but really … who does Vegas “right”?  Besides, we’re talking flights, hotels, expensive meals, shows, and a trip to the Elvis chapel that we don’t remember.

But, the vagus nerve can give us immediate access to relief, when it is stimulated.  Here are seven ways to do that:

Deep Breathing – Deep inhalation, a short pause at the top, and a slow exhalation.  This practice stimulates the vagus nerve, which sends signals of relaxation throughout the body.  It settles down the stress response.

Cold Therapy – A cold plunge, such as an ice bath or a cold shower, or even splashing cold water on our face in the morning activates cholinergic neurons along the vagus nerve pathways, reducing the sympathetic response to stress.   

Meditation – It increases vagal tone and positive emotions.  It promotes feelings of contentedness, controls anxiety, and improves sleep.

Ohm – Also singing, humming, and chanting work as well.  In many yoga sessions, you might hear this “ohming”, in which a deep resonating sound is created in the back of our throats.  It starts with the mouth open, then finishes closed in a hum.  Anyways, the vagus nerve is connected to the muscles in the back of our throat and vocal cords and is stimulated by the vibration.

Laugh – Laughing is a big deal when it comes to vagal tone, positive emotions, and mood.  Doing this in a group or social setting has even bigger effects.  So laugh, but not that courteous, fake “Oh, that’s so funny” kind of laugh we do at get-togethers we don’t want to be at in the first place, as we sip cheap wine in fancy glass.  No; I’m talking about real laughter; the kind that hurts the abs.  Get some.  I like watching stand-up comedy that pushes boundaries. 

Massage – While almost all massages are great, there are two standouts, with the first being the foot massage.  It’s been shown to increase vagal modulation and decrease the sympathetic fight or flight response.  The second is a self-massage near the carotid sinus; an area on the right side of the throat just under the jaw line.  I actually do the left side as well.

Cat/Cow – If you’ve ever done yoga, you’ve probably done the cat and cow.  This motion involves the head and torso, the same large area where the vagus nerve travels.  This combination of breathing and movement stimulates the vagus.

So, for effective and immediate relief of stress and to promote well-being, the vagus nerve is a key component.  It’s big, influential, and effects many bodily systems so it’s obvious that what happens in the vagus, doesn’t stay in the vagus.

I couldn’t resist. 


Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

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