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The Vagus Nerve & Manual Vagus Nerve Stimulation

August 4, 2020

The vagus (Latin for wandering) nerve is the longest nerve in the body.

It is far reaching, extending from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, moving past your heart and lungs and connecting your throat and facial muscles.

The nerve fibers existing throughout your stomach and intestines are referred to as your second brain. That is because 90% of those nerve fibers connect back up to the brain through the vagus nerve.

A key player in the body-mind connection, the vagus nerve is behind your gut instinct, the knot in your throat, and the sparkle in your smile. You can think of the vagus nerve as a two-way radio communication system helping you stay in touch with your sensations and emotions.

The vagus nerve is essential for keeping your immune system in-check. There is a close connection between chronic stress, immune functioning, and inflammation.

In brief, short-term activation of your sympathetic nervous system releases cortisol and helps keep your immune system at healthy levels. Long-term and chronic traumatic stress suppresses immunity and has an inverse reaction. This results in leaving your immune system unchecked which leads to inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the body may cause additional health concerns, such as arthritis and other auto-immune diseases.

By activating the vagus nerve you keep your immune system in check and release an assortment of hormones and enzymes, resulting in the reduction of inflammation, improvements in memory, and feelings of relaxation. Vagus nerve stimulation has also been shown to reduce allergic reactions and tension headaches.

Abdominal Breathing and Stimulation of the Vagus Nerve: The breath is one of the fastest ways to influence your nervous system. The aim is to move the belly and diaphragm with the breath and to slow down your breathing.

Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed down to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 5.

You can further stimulate the vagus nerve by creating a slight constriction at the back of the throat and creating an “hhh”. Breathe like you are trying to fog a mirror to create the feeling in the throat but inhale and exhale out of the nose sound (in yoga this is called Ujjayi pranayam).

The breathing techniques used in contemplative activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong include, but are not restricted to, slowing down respiration cycles, shifting to longer exhalations compared to inhalations and focusing the breath to the abdomen using diaphragmatic breathing.

Frequently practicing slow abdominal breathing with long exhalations during the practice of meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong has shown to have beneficial effects on physical health, mental health, and cognition: mostly in stress-related conditions and performance. Deep abdominal breathing combined with these practices all result in moving towards the rest-and-digest mode of operation and away from fight-or-flight. It is a manual stimulation of the vagus nerve which also results in slowing down the heart rate.

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