Published 12/14/2013. Last updated 1/16/2014.
The vagus nerve, our 10th cranial nerve, runs from the hypothalamus in the brain to all the body organs shown in the diagram above, terminating in the gut. It wraps around the heart and core area of the gut, delivering the healing, calming neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, all along its route.
When stressed, the body becomes inflamed in response. Acetylcholine acts as a brake on inflammation. Acetylcholine is also responsible for learning and memory.
A key function of the vagus nerve is to act as a reset button after your internal alarm system goes off in response to some type of real or perceived threat. Once you feel safe again, the nerve delivers the news to the rest of your body that it can return to normal healing mode. Your breath and heart rate can calm down. Stress hormones stop being produced.
If you live in a perpetually overstressed state (in a war zone; have PTSD, OCD, insomnia, a stressful job …) the body is unable to calm down and heal itself – and your body becomes increasingly inflamed. As we all know, chronic stress creates a whole variety of negative effects, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, interference with thinking and attention.
The best way to activate the vagus nerve and your relaxation response is to breathe. Slow, deep breaths relax and expand your diaphragm, restarting the vagus system, lowering your cortisol level and letting your brain heal. (Leiff, 2012) (Papas, 2012)
All kinds of good things happen when the mind is quiet.
Lieff, J. (2012). Searching for the Mind with Jon Lieff, M.D. Blog post 11/19/2012. Gut Feelings: The Brain-Gut-Microbe Axis. See http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/gut-feelings-the-brain-gut-microbe-axis
Papas, H. (2012). Insightful Nutrition: Orthomolecular Health and Nutrition, The Vagus Nerve – its many roles and functions. See http://helenpapas.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/the-vagus-nerve-its-many-roles-and-functions/
A version of this page content will appear in my forthcoming 2014 Oriental Medicine Journal article THE MICROBIOTA-GUT-BRAIN AXIS: The constant two-way communication between our guts and our brains.
© Copyright 2013-2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.