Got a gut feeling? There's a nerve for that! The vagus nerve is a direct line of communication between the brain and the gut. Invisible to the eye and even our touch, the vagus nerve plays a key role in everything from our emotions to our quality of sleep. Read to learn all about the fascinating role of the vagus nerve.
What Exactly Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex cranial nerve in the body. Its name, derived from Latin, means “wandering,” and rightly so. As the 10th cranial nerve, this vagabond extends from the brain stem down to the trachea, larynx, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, pancreas and intestines. Yep, it touches just about everything! The vagus nerve controls your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system. Think of it as your “rest and digest” mode. It’s the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, or the state of “fight or flight” which pumps out adrenaline when you’re feeling really stressed.
What Does the Vagus Nerve Actually Do?
When your anxiety is through the roof, the vagus nerve tells your body to “chill” by releasing acetylcholine, a soothing neurotransmitter that melts tension away. The more toned your vagus nerve is, the more effective this relaxation response will be!
A certain level of inflammation is normal post-injury or illness, however studies show that excessive inflammation causes disease and chronic pain. It’s no surprise that a primary factor of inflammation is chronic stress. The vagus nerve helps keep inflammation in check by reducing the stressful “fight or flight” response.
Encourages Positive Relationships with Others
When we are social beings, the ventral (front) side of the vagus nerve supports our feelings of physical and emotional safety and wellbeing with others. The vagus nerve helps us feel safe, calm, connected and engaged in our relationships. We love those warm fuzzy feelings! On the flip side, the dorsal (back) of the vagus nerve responds to feelings of danger and helps to protect us from interacting with others who we perceive to be emotionally or physically unsafe. The area of study around the vagus nerve and human relationships was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, and is known as The Polyvagal Theory.
It Helps Us Sleep Better
The transition from wakefulness to rest, coincides with the vagus nerve nudging the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate the body’s relaxation response. Maintaining optimal Vagal Tone then is crucial to a good night’s sleep.
It Helps Us Digest Our Food
The vagus nerve even signals your stomach to push food into the small intestines and helps with digestion.
Increasing Vagal Tone and Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
Here are some of our favorite ways to tend to our vagus nerve: