You’ve got some nerve!
Updated: Sep 18
This article was first published in Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Dr. Brian A. Magna • DPT • ATC — Special to Today Magazine
In physical therapy, we often talk about the musculoskeletal system and how it relates to function and pain. Over the past few years, a great deal of research has gone into the effects of stress on the body and how pain increases and function decreases when our bodies experience anxiety.
One of the key structures in our bodies that we don’t pay enough attention to is the vagus nerve. What and where is that, you ask?
The vagus nerve is the 10th of our 12 cranial nerves and is responsible for regulation of internal organ function. Each of our cranial nerves is a pair of nerves, with one on each side of the body. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract, running from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen.
A 2014 study by Dr. Robert Howland noted that vagus nerve stimulation by internal or external TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) had positive effects for reduction of symptoms associated with epilepsy, depression and heart failure. Other conditions possibly affected by the vagus nerve include stress, anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, inflammation and digestion.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and interfaces with ... the heart, lungs and digestive tract
So why now? Why have so many people not heard of this nerve and its effects on our bodily functions as a whole?
It is my belief that since society appears to be turning to a much more holistic approach in medicine and health, we are finally beginning to understand the bodily connection approach to our well-being while utilizing an evidence-based approach.
Studies show that the vagus nerve is essential for our mental well-being and physical health. This is because when we are functioning from a parasympathetic point of view — using nerves arising from the brain and the lower end of the spinal cord — we are able to repair, digest and assimilate nutrients in our food properly.
More studies demonstrate that stimulating the vagus nerve ourselves can be essential to a healthy life. Common and simple ways to stimulate the vagus nerve are:
Exposure to cold activates cholinergic neurons. These neurons provide the primary source of acetylcholine to the cerebral cortex, which helps contract smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels and slows the heart rate.
Studies have shown that drinking chilled water not only decreases the heart rate but also stimulates the vagus nerve. Since the vagus nerve is directly affected by the low temperature of water, the heart rate eventually slows down. Cold showers are another easy way to integrate this into your life.
Deep and Slow Breathing
Breathe more slowly — aim for six breaths per minute. Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale. Exhale longer than you inhale.
Humming and Singing
Since the vagus nerve is attached to the vocal chords and the muscles around them, humming and singing are great ways to stimulate the nerve.
Probiotics improve gut and digestive function.
Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found in fish oil are capable of increasing heart rate variability while lowering the heart rate, which helps to activate the vagus nerve.
Aerobic exercise stimulates your vagus nerve and lowers the stress response associated with fight-or-flight mechanisms.
You can manually stimulate the vagus nerve by massaging certain areas of the body. A neck massage along the carotid sinus, the right side of your throat, stimulates the vagus nerve. A foot massage can also increase vagal modulation and lower blood pressure.
Socializing and Laughing
Laughter is a super-easy thing to do. The vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest part of the nervous system, which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight part of the nervous system. So essentially, when you laugh, you're telling your body to relax.
Who would have thought the vagus nerve has so many functions and can be positively influenced by each of us in so many ways? Why aren’t we taught more about this great nerve to help us with our health? It’s never too late to make a difference.
We all have some nerve … don’t we? +
Dr. Brian Magna owns Magna Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Center, with locations in Avon and Canton • 860-679-0430 • www.magnapt.com
This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication