What is the role of the vagus nerve in the fight or flight response?
The vagus nerve function is, as one of the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system, to help to calm down the fight or flight response. Generally speaking, your fight or flight response is brought about by your sympathetic nervous system and an increased production of adrenalin. Your parasympathetic nervous system, or calming nervous system, downregulates or counteracts the sympathetic nervous system, making sure you don’t remain in sympathetic “overdrive”, or “fight or flight” for too long when it’s not necessary.
What do we know about the connection between the vagus nerve and stress? How, specifically, does the vagus nerve influence the stress response? Is there conclusive evidence for this or are we still in the "theory" stage?
Your vagus has the ability to alter both your acute and chronic stress response. Stress is a condition where your body and nervous system are constantly in sympathetic stimulation. In Holistic Medicine this could be due to a number of factors, including a stressful job, late nights, unhealthy relationships, physical and emotional abuse and even unhealed trauma from childhood. During stress, your body is in a “fight or flight state”, whereby your sympathetic nervous system is active and your adrenal glands are releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin.
By counteracting the sympathetic nervous system, your Vagus nerve helps to reduce stress. Sometimes, with chronic stress or unhealed trauma, your sympathetic nervous system remains active and overrides your ability to go back into parasympathetic or “resting” state. This is where therapy, deep breathing and other Vagus nerve exercises can help to bring your nervous system back into balance.
Scientific studies have also shown that your Vagus nerve also releases cytokines which alter the functioning of your heart, digestive system, adrenal system and respiratory system. This means that when you activate the Vagus nerve using some of the exercises described below, you could also change the way your organs function, reduce your heart rate, calm down your breathing and also change the way your body responds to stressful signals.
What are the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation?
Because of the interaction of your Vagus nerve with your heart, digestive system, liver, breathing and nervous system, stimulating your Vagus nerve has multiple benefits, including, but not limited to:
- Improved digestion and absorption of food
- Lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
- Reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and improve overall mental health
- Improved liver detoxification and bile flow, which also helps to improve digestion
- Deeper or easier breathing
- Reduced inflammation (usually due to the release of beneficial cytokines)
- Reduction in pain, again due to a reduced stress response and the release of beneficial cytokines.
How to stimulate the Vagus Nerve - Vagus nerve exercises
Deep Diaphragmatic breathing
Because your Vagus nerve helps control your breathing, there are feedback signals from your respiratory system back to your Vagus nerve. This means, by consciously altering your breathing to be deeper, calmer and more regulated, you actually stimulate your Vagus nerve to become more “active”, which puts your body into a more “resting” or parasympathetic state.
Singing and Humming
Similar to deep breathing, singing and humming also stimulate your Vagus nerve because your Vagus nerve is also connected to your vocal chords. That is why many cultures engage in singing and humming – both for connection as well as to calm their nervous system and improve their health.
Meditation generally involves closing your eyes, breathing deeply and focusing on one object, thought or image. By changing your focus, you distract your mind from stressful memories and negative self-talk, which were likely engaging your stress response. As you change your focus and continue to breathe deeply, your vagus nerve will become more engaged. You can find also emotional healing exercises in my free holistic medicine courses online.
Exercise and Yoga
Certain types of exercise, especially yoga, will help you release stress and stimulate your Vagus nerve. This is why many people feel less stressed after yoga and certain exercises. Regular exercise and strength training gives your body a certain kind of “confidence”, and this “confidence” also helps to calm down your nervous system.
Vagus Nerve Massage
A relaxing massage gives your mind and body the impression that you are “safe” and well taken care of, as if you were in your mother’s womb and all is okay. This automatically puts your nervous system into a “rest and digest” Vagus nerve dominant parasympathetic state. Massage also stimulates certain acupuncture meridians and acupressure points, which connect directly to your nervous system and help calm it down.