What Happens in Vagus...

The Vagus Nerve is considered by many to be the most important nerve(s) in the body. Without going through a complete anatomy and physiology lesson (you’re welcome), a basic understanding of the functions of the vagus nerve, and what you can do to support it, is invaluable to improving your overall health.

Your nervous system can be divided into 3 main categories when it comes to the function of an individual nerve -sensory,  motor or autonomic. Sensory nerves are responsible for what we feel, see, taste, smell or hear. When I say “feel” I don’t mean emotions. I mean things like hot, cold, soft or hard. Pain would fall into this category as well. Motor nerves are responsible for muscle contraction and relaxation. In other words, for the movement of our body. Autonomic nerves are responsible for “automatic” functions. Autonomic nerves can be subdivided into sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. Sympathetic nerves are responsible for our fight or flight response and are the nerves that are activated by stress. Parasympathetic nerves are responsible for our rest and digestion processes.

The vagus nerve has all 3 types of functions: sensory, motor and autonomic. Its autonomic functions are on the rest and digest side. The number of organs that it supports is the primary reason it is considered to be the most important nerve in the body. Hang with me for just a bit… I know this sounds like a boring high school biology lesson. The autonomic functions of the vagus nerve have a big impact on our health. The good news? You can measure your “vagal tone” (more on that in a minute) and improve it yourself.

Vagal tone is the term used to describe the level of function of the vagus nerve. We want to shoot for high vagal tone. Low vagal tone is what can lead to long term health problems. The leading cause of low vagal tone is being in a constant state of stress. Before you say, “Sure, I have stress but it’s not constant for me”, I want you to realize that there are 3 different forms of stress.

Physical stress is best described as what our physical body goes through on a daily basis. The positions we spend extended periods of time in can be physically stressing to our bodies. Also in this category would be past traumas such as car accidents, falls, sports injuries etc. When your body is in pain from these physical stresses, your nervous system perceives it as stress and puts you in a fight or flight state.

Chemical stress is another form that needs to be addressed. Chemical stress basically comes from what we eat. How’s your nutritional intake? Most of my patients tell me, “Oh, I’m trying to do better.” I appreciate the sentiment, but the truth is we can all do better. Our food is supposed to give our body the tools it needs to keep up our defenses and promote healing.

The third stress is the one that affects that vagus nerve the most. Emotional or mental stress is what most folks think of when I mention the word stress. Worries about money, relationships, job concerns, or. anything that causes us emotional stress puts us into a fight or flight mode. Emotional stress is what affects our heart rate variability the most.

Heart rate variability is a great measure for how well your body handles stress and whether you are in fight or flight mode. Simply put, your heart rate should have some variations to its beating pattern while you are at rest. While it doesn’t vary greatly, it should not be a steady rhythm. When we are under stress, our heart rate will elevate and beat at a more steady rhythm.

Heart rate is easily measured through technology. Smart watches are equipped with heart rate sensors and do an “ok” job of measuring heart rate variability. Another wearable device that does a better job monitoring your heart rate (and many other health parameters) is the Oura ring The scanning equipment I use in the office has a heart rate variability monitor that is incredibly accurate.

I encourage you to track your heart rate variability and learn ways to improve it. As I mentioned earlier, vagal tone is the term used to describe the health of your vagus nerve. The higher the tone, the healthier your vagus nerve is. Our entire nervous system has a “tone” to it, a vibratory frequency, and the vagus nerve is no different. Improving the tone of your nervous system is the goal of regular chiropractic care and upper cervical adjustments have been shown to affect the tone of the vagus nerve.

You can improve the tone of your vagus nerve on your own with some simple daily activities. One is to simply hum. Whether its to music playing in the background or in a meditative posture, humming stimulates the vagus nerve and improves its tone (no pun intended). A function of the vagus nerve is muscle control of the back of the throat including the vocal chords. Humming acts as an exercise for the vagus nerve. Pretty cool, huh?

You can learn more ways to stimulate your vagus nerve in the article How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health.

You are unique… your care should be too. If you want a change in your health and are tired of the same old approach to healthcare, reach out to me. I would love to help.

Dr. Ed


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