2 years ago I was sitting at the bottom of a crag while out climbing with my family and friends. One of our friends, happens to be a brilliant mad scientist- no really she is a scientist and has a brilliant mind. I will admit she isn’t mad but I guess she is in some instances. She is mad in that she makes bold moves within her research and profession. Or so it appears to everyone else because her thinking is so far from everyone else’s normal but it kinda makes sense. I have always experienced her as starting a conversation off with an implausible concept- so Implausible that you look at her with a sideways glance but at the same time you are hooked and now have to hear the rest. And when the rest is explained, your mere mortal brain can only process about one tenth of what she is trying to explain. But the seed is planted and you go back home and trawl journal articles trying to validate(or just understand) what she was saying. This process is quite tough as she is so forward thinking and cutting edge that the research doesn’t often exist and you land up trying to connect dots. But its all there if you think a bit laterally and connect the dots. So while trying to contain my one year old in the hammock so she doesn’t stumble off the cliff face, my friend is talking to me about vagal nerve stimulation, cytokines and singing. What on earth do these have in common???
Well after that conversation, 2am searches and journal article readings I can now tell you the little I know of it. The vagus nerve is involved in many bodily functions including regulating your heart but of particular interest to me is it’s function in reducing inflammation and stress. In many cases, inflammation is the body’s response to stress. So if we can effect the body’s response to stress we can help with reducing inflammation. There is a growing case that creating healthy vagal tone helps with chronic pain and inflammation. Achieving healthy vagal tone can be done through practicing yoga, deep breathing, singing and chanting. Is this why monks have such a sense of inner peace? Is it actually vagal tone causing their calm? Now there is something to think about.
The vagus nerve is known as the wandering nerve as it services so many areas and organs in the body. It stretches all the way from the brain, through the diaphragm, branches out to the heart and into the gut with plenty more branches and stops along the way. The word Vagus is derived from Latin and has origins related to vagabond, vagrant and vague. How cool are you? You have a vagabond nerve!
This vagabond nerve is responsible for releasing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps in reducing the heart rate. The vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system so it works hard to counter the effects of the fight or flight response produced by the sympathetic nervous system. It even communicates your guts anxiety and feelings of fear to the brain. That’s right, your gut has feelings. Stress causes upregulation of the immune system which includes pro-inflammatory cytokines. An increase in cytokines is also linked to depression, anxiety and heart problems. There is promising research that shows the benefits of implanting a small medical device attached to the vagus nerve can improve symptoms of Chron‘s, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s helps by reducing the cytokines which cause inflammation.
As mentioned above, there are ways of stimulating the vagus nerve and they aren’t that hard. Deep breathing everyday, focusing on the exhale is very effective. Ever noticed how stress free the church choir is after church? You guessed it, it’s because they have been stimulating their vagus nerve through singing. And the yogis aren’t that friendly by choice. It’s because they are all chilled out from massaging their vagus nerve through putting their bodies into positions that are unnatural. Or are they? If you are up to it, loud shouting also helps your vagal tone So climb a mountain and shout away.
So go on.... release your inner vagabond and decrease inflammation in your body at the same time.