Understanding Your Nervous System: The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a fascinating part of our anatomy.

It is the 10th cranial nerve, originates off of the brainstem and travels down through the neck to supply our major organs. It is largely responsible for regulating our bodies and bringing about homeostasis and adapting us to our environment.

The vagus is part of the autonomic nervous system which is that part of our nervous system that does everything automatically for us.

We don’t have to think about breathing, digesting our food, and making our heart beat because it is all performed automatically. The nervous system determines the needs our bodies have and then responds appropriately.

That is, as long as it can interpret those needs accurately and send the proper signals to all of the parts.

That automatic system is subdivided into two branches:

  • the sympathetic nervous system (Fight, Flight, Freeze) and
  • the parasympathetic system (Healing, Resting Digesting, Development)

The nervous system is only able to be in one of these states at a time.  This is an extremely important concept, because fixing an imbalance in these systems is key to healing and optimal function for individuals with chronic physical and mental health challenges.

Imagine that you have a pair of red glasses and a pair of blue glasses. You always have to wear glasses, but you can only wear one pair at a time; and the pair that you wear greatly influences how you perceive and interact with the world.

When you wear the red glasses (Fight, Flight or Freeze), your heart rate elevates, your palms begin to sweat, and blood flow shifts from organs of digestion towards the large muscle groups so that we can run or fight.

Even the blood flow in the brain shifts from areas concerned with higher functioning to areas associated with immediate survival.

When you wear the blue glasses (Healing, Resting, Digesting, Development), you are much calmer. Your body focuses on development, repair, digestion, producing the right hormones, and maintaining homeostasis.

Areas of the brain that are associated with higher functioning are engaged, while areas associated with emergency situations are not active.

Many individuals, especially those with chronic disorders, find themselves in a state of a chronic sympathetic (Fight, Flight or Freeze) response.

While this state is a positive temporary response to a stressor, chronic activity of this system will cause breakdown and malfunctioning of our bodies and health. This is like wearing the red glasses constantly, and almost never being able to take them off.

The chronic engagement of our sympathetic nervous system can cause a continuous supply of stress hormones, disrupt sleep patterns, lead to chronic gut and digestive complaints and alter the course of brain development.

This stress response will also lead to a variety of symptoms from other body systems due to the body’s inability to repair itself while under constant stress.

To get a full picture of living in a hyper-sympathetic (Fight, Flight or Freeze) state, I recommend reading The Complex PTSD Workbook by Arielle Schwartz.

A growing body of research is recognizing the importance of having a balanced autonomic nervous system and now understands that the vagus nerve is largely responsible for that. In fact, low vagal tone has been associated with numerous chronic disease processes, autoimmune disorders, mental health challenges and neurodevelopmental disorders.

From this perspective, one soon sees that balancing the autonomic nervous system, removing neurological stress and improving the health and functioning of the nervous system can have dramatic, positive effects on an individual with chronic diseases, autoimmune disorders, neurodevelopmental conditions and mental health issues.

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