Meditation, Overall Health and the Vagus Nerve


Meditation, Overall Health and the Vagus Nerve

What, where and for what is our vagus nerve? In this post, I offer some personal experiences of noticing how meditation affects my own vagus nerve, and some others’ diagrams and info for having a more healthy vagus nerve and how having a strong, or “toned,” vagus nerve improves many aspects of one’s health.

First, what is the vagus nerve? It is often called “the X cranial nerve or the tenth cranial nerve” because it extends throughout the body into the cranium of our brains. The vagus is the longest nerve in a human’s nervous system, starting in our intestinal area and stretching all the way into our brains.

Where is it? Almost everywhere! It is not straight: the vagus goes curving, looping and touching many organs and parts of our body as it extends.

from https://greatist.com/health/vagus-nerve
Design by Mekhi Baldwin

What does the vagus nerve “do”? We don’t even yet know all of its influences, but here are some functions we do know about, below.

How can we improve our vagus nerve’s usefulness? Many people have been studying this, and here are some tips, below.

Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.

“In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.

“When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other.”
https://sass.uottawa.ca/sites/sass.uottawa.ca/files/how_to_stimulate_your_vagus_nerve_for_better_mental_health_1.pdf

Vagus nerve diagram. Parasympathetic and central nervous system function. Signals from brain to internal organs in the human body. Spinal cord and nerves connections flat medical vector illustration. From: https://www.istockphoto.com/photos/vagus-nerve

How can we improve our vagus nerves “at home?” Here are 9 “Ways of Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Nourish Your Body and Mind”:

I. “Deep, slow, belly breathing is [one] way to stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve.

  1. Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute).
  2. Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale.
  3. Exhale longer than you inhale.

I don’t do this nearly enough. It’s so much better than ordinary breathing, too. Try it!

II. “The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone. The vibrations from ‘OM’ chanting stimulate the vagus nerve, which then sends out neurotransmitters and electrical signals that reduce activity to key areas of the brain like the amygdala, associated with our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response.

III. “Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways.

IV. “Gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. Omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity. Studies shown that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve. And, high fish consumption is also associated with ‘enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance.’

V. “Exercise also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects.

VI. “Massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone.

VII. “Socializing and laughing can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone.”

VIII. Yoga poses with or without meditation practices in addition to those sessions are great for vagal toning.

IX. Intermittent fasting is a health benefit for many, but check with your health care provider if you are diabetic, have hypoglycemia, may be pregnant or have other conditions that make fasting something that must be carefully monitored. “Fasting and caloric restriction increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone.”

https://www.artofliving.org/us-en/7-natural-ways-to-strengthen-and-stimulate-your-vagus-nerve-today

Prefer watching and listening to reading? Try this short video, in which Naomi Goodlet provides an exercise for vagus nerve health on YouTube, “A 12-Minute Breathing Practice to Activate Your Vagus Nerve”:

As a long-time (for almost 50 years) meditator, I can attest that stimulating the vagus nerve does occur during many types of meditation and is extremely pleasurable. Also, many other benefits occur from having good vagal tone, as indicated above and below in this post and via the links in this post.

“The vagus nerve and meditation are intertwined. What happens if you stimulate the vagus nerve?
When stimulated, you feel calmer, more compassionate, and clearer. Stimulating the vagus benefits your autonomic nervous system and mental health.

“Healthy vagal tone means emotional regulation, greater connection, and better physical health as well.

“The vagus nerve stimulates certain muscles in the heart that help to slow heart rate.

“Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself.

“Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ activity and increases vagal modulation.”

Image result for vagus nerve stimulation symptoms meditation
Vagus nerve pathway in humans

“The first study found that stimulating the vagus nerve dramatically reduces the severity of depression.

“The second study found that mindfulness meditation also optimized functional connectivity of the default mode network which lowered inflammation and improved the brain’s ability to manage stress and anxiety.”

More info about the vagus nerve and its functions, as quoted above, here: https://greatist.com/health/vagus-nerve#testing

I actually feel my vagus nerve responding as soon as I am doing an advanced meditation practice (dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana meditation technique) that I have been doing many times during and sometimes for hours daily since 1999. I mostly feel this response in the vicinity of my heart and solar plexus, as if a metaphoric flower were opening, like a warmth spreading inside my abdomen and chest. This vagus nerve stimulation is, for me, similar to the physical experiences of feelings of being happily but quietly excited, a first awareness of falling in love, and/or my noticing my being loved by or loving someone dear.

Do you ever sense your vagus nerve while engaging in any activities or practices?
—Where in your body?
—In what ways?
—Exactly when/during what activities?

Comments are best offered here: http://www.sallyember.com/meditation-overall-health-and-the-vagus-nerve I will respond to all legitimate readers.

Good luck and best of vagal tone to you all!

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