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Yoga Anatomy: Tone Your Vagus Nerve to Combat Inflammation
Researchers now know that the vagus nerve is the key to relaxation, and, as it turns out, one of the body’s best defenses against inflammation.
One of 12 cranial nerves connecting the brain and body, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) traveling from the base of the brain to the colon, with branches that innervate almost all major organs in the chest and abdomen, including the digestive system, liver, spleen, pancreas, heart, and lungs.
And while some of its physiological functions have long been established, over the past decade more and more research and information have surfaced regarding the vagus nerve’s crucial role in our overall physical health and wellbeing, including social connectivity and emotional resilience (i.e., the ability to adapt to stressful situations).
What’s more, there is increasing evidence that stimulating the vagus nerve and improving “vagal tone” (the health and function of your vagus nerve) can help combat inflammation.
Here’s how it works.
Stress and the Role of the Vagus Nerve
Stress, psychological or emotional, triggers the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” reflex, setting off a well-orchestrated series of involuntary physiological functions meant to help us survive. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, are released, effectively preparing your body to either stay and face the danger or run away to safety.
The moment your brain perceives a threat, whether physical or emotional, your pupils dilate, the heart pumps faster, breath quickens, blood pressure increases, and muscles tense. Nonessential (in-an-emergency) functions, like digestion and immune response, are also repressed.
While necessary for survival, the stress response, however, is meant to be short-lived. Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s relaxation response, meant to calm everything down and bring the body back into homeostasis.
Enter the vagus nerve: commander of the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. The vital nerve pumps the brakes on the stress response, regulating heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, sweating, and digestion, producing a calm and relaxed physical and mental state.
The Vagus Nerve’s Defense Against Inflammation
Inflammation is also a part of the body’s physiological response to a perceived threat, which, like all involuntary actions associated with the fight-or-flight reflex, can be beneficial in the short term.
Stress causes the release of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which initiate the immune system’s responses against foreign invaders such as an infection in the body. They are meant to show up, take care of business, and disappear. However, prolonged or chronic stress (which is all too common in today’s society) leads to an up-regulation of cytokines in the body, resulting in chronic, low-level inflammation that can wreak havoc in the body.
The vagus nerve is not only responsible for regulating the body’s stress response, therefore helping reduce the risk of chronic inflammation. The vital nerve also fights inflammation directly.
In a 2016 study, an international team of researchers discovered that the vagus nerve has an inflammatory reflex that works to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. That light stimulation at the vagus nerve (via a small, electronic implanted device) significantly reduces inflammation and the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. (1) This has enormous implications for patients suffering from other inflammatory diseases, including Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s.
Stimulating Your Vagus Nerve with Deep Breathing
One of the quickest ways to activate the vagus nerve and disrupt the stress response is to take a few (or more) deep breaths.
Simply put, the vagus nerve pays attention to the way you’re breathing, sending sensory information to your brain. Shallow, rapid breaths signify a threat or danger to the brain, kicking in the physiological stress response. While longer, slower breaths indicate a level of safety, sending the brain signals to relax, thus interrupting the stress response.
Experts agree that the most effective calming, yet simple breathing technique is to inhale for five seconds then exhaling for five seconds, amounting to around six breaths per minute.
More Ways to Tone Your Vagus Nerve
Aside from deep or diaphragmatic breathing, there are other ways to tone and improve the health of your vagus nerve, including laughing, singing, humming, gently massaging the long nerve, acupuncture, yoga practice, and cold water therapies. And while implanted devices are only available for a small handful of patients with epilepsy, the current clinical trials are presenting exciting findings as they explore the emerging field of bioelectronics integrative medicine.
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (E-RYT 500) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion, and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga, a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion, and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients, and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule, and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com.