If you’re ever having difficulty sleeping, give me a call and I’ll give you some of my medical texts to read. In these sacred texts, you will learn the finer points of caring for interesting body parts, including the sternocleidomastoid, the superior mesenteric ganglion, and the vagus nerve.
Are you still reading? Thank you for your patience. I’ll try to make it more interesting now.
Every Part Is Important
While the Latin names might not mean much, every part has a purpose and function within your body. It’s like an orchestra. An orchestra has anywhere from 30 to 100 individual players, but each one has a specific role to play; if any one of them were missing, the orchestra would be incomplete, no matter how small that part.
Your body has thousands of parts, and each one is important, including the ones you don’t see or feel (unless they are unhealthy). In fact, some of the most important parts are the ones you don’t see, like your heart, lungs, and kidneys.
This week, I want to go beyond the parts that everybody knows about and show you how one part that you have probably never heard of contributes mightily to your overall wellness. Then I want to show you some things you can do to keep it healthy.
What Happens In Vagus…
One of the parts of your body that plays a critical role in your health (but your doctor never talks about) is your Vagus nerve.
The Vagus nerve is like the USB cable that connects your computer to your printer, your scanner, your Kindle, and your other peripherals (back before everything went wireless), but this wire connects your brain to your heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, stomach, and intestines. Basically, it is the communication channel that allows your brain to control all the unconscious parts of your body’s operations.
Imagine if you constantly had to remember to breathe, blink, swallow, digest, and make your heart pump. Fortunately, there’s an app in your brain that does all of that automatically so you don’t have to, and the Vagus nerve is the wire that handles all that communication for you.
If It Sounds Familiar, It Is
Eagle-eyed readers will remember that I have talked about the Vagus nerve here before. The last time I mentioned it, we were talking about the communication between your intestine and your brain. Some physicians and psychologists talk about the gut as the “second brain” because of the role it plays in directing and responding to emotion, and the fact that your immune system is run from control modules in the gut (the biome) and the brain.
So, while your gastroenterologist is looking at the way your brain and gut use the Vagus nerve to communicate digestion messages, and your immunologist is studying the way they use it to conduct an immune response to viruses, your psychologist is looking at the way your brain and gut communicate emotional content back and forth.
If you’re scanning past the dry medical stuff, here’s where it gets interesting.
Where Do Emotions Live?
Where do you typically experience feelings of stage fright? In your midsection, right? Some people describe it as a kind of nausea.
Where do your fluttery “in love” feelings usually percolate? In your midsection again, right? People say it feels like butterflies.
What I’m getting at is that the Vagus nerve doesn’t just facilitate the life functions of your body, it also manages much of how you experience life.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response that we experience when we are confronted with danger. There is also a “rest and digest” or “tend-and-befriend” function that governs our behavior in social settings. The Vagus nerve is where those responses happen. Our ability to protect ourselves, feed ourselves, and organize ourselves into communities with other humans is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system, which is basically a tree of nerves and the Vagus nerve is the trunk.
So your experience of stress, anxiety, anger, relaxation, hunger, and isolation are managed by the Vagus nerve.
Does that sound like the kind of system you would want to keep healthy?
I thought so.
BTW: Thank you for coming this far with me. Sometimes, you have to wade through some technical jargon to get the context for what we need to talk about.
Keeping The Important Nerve Healthy
Now that we understand how the Vagus nerve serves our vital organs, as well as our emotional system, let’s talk about ways to exercise it and keep it healthy.
Psychology Today published a series of articles last year on nine strategies for working with the Vagus nerve to manage stress. I want to highlight a couple of them here because I believe you can use these techniques today to manage stress and anxiety in your life.
Have you ever felt panicky?
Maybe you’ve been in a situation at work where you’re about to have an uncomfortable meeting with the boss. Or it was your turn at school to read your book report in front of the class. Maybe you found yourself being followed home by a stranger. All of these are natural opportunity to feel a sense of panic. What is the advice most people give when they encounter someone panicking? “Take a deep breath.”
Why do we take a deep breath to calm down?
A series of studies in the 2010s helped to validate what the yoga teachers have been saying for a thousand years: deep breathing stimulates a relaxation response in the Vagus nerve, which then communicates out to the rest of the nervous system.
At the bottom of your lung cavity is a large muscle, called the diaphragm, which controls how you inhale and exhale. Take a breath in now. If you’re breathing properly, the area below your rib cage should expand outward as your lungs fill with air. The mistake many people make is they raise their shoulders when they breathe in, maybe because they are afraid of looking “fat” when their diaphragm muscle expands. Proper breathing technique involves the diaphragm pulling air down into the lungs.
Calming Vagus Exercise
Try this: breathe in through your nose, visualizing your lungs filling up from the bottom to the top, until you feel like you will burst if you pull in any more air. Hold it for a count of three, then slowly release it through pursed lips as if you were trying to blow up a balloon through a coffee straw. Tighten your abdominal muscles as you push the air out. The whole exercise takes about 60 seconds, but you will likely feel different. You might feel a little light-headed – and that’s OK – but you will also feel your heart rate slow down. If you were feeling anxious or stressed, you might feel those emotions subsiding as well.
This kind of simple relaxation technique has a ton of application. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs have been using this technique to help veterans suffering from PTSD to lower their heart rates during and after panic attacks, and manage their responses. Anything that empowers people to stabilize their own emotional responses without chemicals is, in my mind, a win.
As we’ve studied in other articles, there are strong connections between anxiety, stress, and inflammation, which is the root of arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, and dozens of digestive disorders. If we can use a simple breathing technique to manage stress.
Have you ever heard of an experience called the “runner’s high?” Basically, it is a release of feel-good neurotransmitters into the bloodstream that accompanies physical exertion. It’s a great way to encourage people to enjoy exercise, but it also poses a danger of addiction, as people can get hooked on the hits of dopamine their bodies naturally produce when they work out. Just like anything else in life, there is a balance that each of us must find when it comes to exercise.
Daily exercises like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and the Move Right Monday series of exercises that I shared on YouTube stimulate your heart and lungs. That exertion also sends relaxation signals out over the Vagus nerve. That is part of the reason that I urge my patients who are executives, pastors, and other people in high-stress occupations to exercise at least three to five times a week. A powerful workout can be done in less than half an hour and doesn’t require a gym membership. You can learn more about that here.
One of the great ironies of 21st-Century living is that the more connected we seem to be, the more isolated we actually are. I believe this is the root of the explosion of suicide we see going on around us. We were created to live in communities, and isolation kills.
Obviously, there is a healthy time to be alone and we all need times of solitude. What I am talking about is the perception of being socially isolated, where your alone-ness is not a choice, but a sense of unworthiness to be accepted by others. No matter how much you might like your alone time, when isolation takes root in your heart and you feel cut off from others (even if it is not reality), part of your soul begins to die. Because our mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social facets are interwoven, death in one area of your life manifests in all the others eventually.
More and more clinical research — and our own life experiences — are demonstrating that Facebook is not an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction. While most clinical research comes from an evolutionary perspective that explains “fight-or-flight,” “and tending-and-befriending” as primate urges that kept our primeval ancestors alive and reproducing, I believe we were created to be contributing members of a global family. Either way, isolation is not natural and our culture of self is damaging us mentally, emotionally, and physically.
As I’ve done here before, I want to urge you to include yourself in a social group in your area — a church, a service organization, or a club based on a hobby. Be an active part of community.
There is so much more I could say here. I encourage you to invest an hour in reading this fascinating study and see for yourself where you might be short-circuiting your health. While he comes primarily from an athletic perspective, and I don’t agree with everything he says, the solutions he offers are relatively simple and some are just fun. There’s something for everyone.
If this was helpful to you, I’m going to ask you to take 8 seconds and share it on your favorite social media channel. It might surprise you who responds to it. Someone in your circle of influence might be looking for this information and you don’t even know it. What have you got to lose? Plus, you’ll help me reach people I couldn’t reach any other way. Let’s work together to get the message of Move Right, Eat Right, Think Right, Live Right to as many people as we can.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas