The importance of the vagal nerve and the nervous system

New research has come out showing the great importance of the vagus nerve on health. The vagus nerve starts in the brain stem and travels down the sides of the neck to the rest of the body. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for wandering, and this nerve, which is made of thousands and thousands of fibers, wanders throughout the whole body, connecting the brain with the organs and a range of other nerves.

Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger. Not all vagus nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagus activity, which means their bodies can relax faster after a stress.

The strength of your vagus response is known as your vagal tone and it can be determined by using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate. Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone.

Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. As part of the immune system, inflammation has a useful role helping the body to heal after an injury, for example, but it can damage organs and blood vessels if it persists when it is not needed. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation.

Neurologists have found that stimulating the vagus nerve with electric currents can reduce inflammation in the body, and can be used to treat chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Meditation can also be used to improve vagal tone. In one experiment, half of the participants were shown meditation techniques to promote greater feelings of goodwill. Those who meditated were found to have a significant rise in vagal tone compared to those who did not. This article on the Bulletproof website offers more ways to ‘hack’ your vagal tone.

To learn more about this fascinating system, please read the article, Hacking the nervous system‘ by Gaia Vince.