In 1921, a German physiologist discovered he could reduce heart rate by stimulating the vagus nerve. Also known as cranial nerve X, the vagus originates in the brain stem and passes through the heart, lungs, and esophagus. It serves as the ultimate communication link between the mind and the body, carrying messages back and forth from the brain to the organs and tissues. Studies show that it plays a big role in mental and physical health.
Eight Ways the Vagus Nerve Affects Health
1. It controls much of the parasympathetic nervous system, carrying information about heart rate and blood pressure, the respiratory system, digestive tract, kidneys, and reproductive organs.
2. It controls the blood pressure and heart rate. Researchers are looking for ways to use vagus nerve stimulation to treat atrial fibrillation and heart failure.
3. It sends messages back and forth between the brain and the gut, which is often called the second brain because it influences mental and physical well-being.
4. It improves mood and anxiety. Stimulation of the vagus nerve is used to treat depression that has not responded to other kinds of treatments. Deep breathing reduces the flight or flight response and reduces stress.
5. It communicates with the diaphragm by releasing a neurotransmitter that is necessary for breathing. This may explain why breathing exercises promote a relaxation response in the parasympathetic nervous system.
6. It decreases inflammation. Studies have shown that yoga and meditation can stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its effects on overall health. Researchers have also traced an anti-inflammatory drug found in the brains of rats to the vagus nerve.
7. It affects learning and memory by helping to “rewire” the brain. Research suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could be helpful in changing the way traumatic memories are stored.
8. It helps to relieve cluster headaches. Participants of a study who underwent vagus nerve stimulation for symptoms of asthma reported that they had fewer headaches.
The vagus nerve’s ability to respond to the nervous system is called vagal tone. Vagal tone may be strengthened in a variety of natural ways, including the following: deep breathing, yoga, qi gong or tai chi, acupuncture, massage, meditation, chanting or singing, and laughter.