Whenever I find myself talking to clients at the clinic about the same thing over and over again, I tend to think it might be a good thing to write about!
The vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves and it is special (and the subject of a lot of research) because it is the longest of the cranial nerves with the most branches to internal organs. It contains afferent and efferent fibers, meaning it is both taking information in from the body, as well as sending information out to the internal organs from the central nervous system.
The vagus nerve also plays a central role in parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation. The PNS is often nicknamed the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” nervous system and it is the opposite or counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or “fight-flight-or-freeze” branch of the nervous system.
While some time in a SNS or fight-flight-or-freeze state is normal and healthy, significant time is required in a PNS-activated state in order to have proper and effective function of your body’s most essential systems: the immune, reproductive, digestive, cardiovascular and nervous systems all require PNS activation!
The more you are able to activate and use the vagus nerve to move into a PNS-dominant state, the easier it will be to do that again in the future. This is how the nervous system operates – the more you do an activity (whether consciously or not), the easier it will be for the nervous system to do that action again. In neuroscience, there is a saying for this – “nerves that fire together, wire together.” Neural connections become physically larger and stronger the more they are used!
So, let’s look at how to use this information practically. If you want to be able to activate your rest and digest nervous system more regularly, how do you strengthen and improve the function of your vagus nerve? How do you increase your body’s ability to switch from fight-flight-or-freeze to rest and digest?
The 2 ways that have been researched thoroughly and have been shown to be safe and effective at increasing vagus nerve tone are acupuncture and meditation.
There is strong evidence to support that acupuncture’s positive effect on inflammation, pain, stress, sleep, and immune system function is due to its ability to send signals to the vagus nerve and that vagal tone is improved with acupuncture.
Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to have significant effects on vagal activity and other indicators of parasympathetic activation (e.g. heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).
Over time, using acupuncture and mindfulness meditation increase the strength and neural network associated with the vagus nerve, making it easier to turn off the “fight-flight-or-freeze” state and get into the nourishing and healing “rest and digest” state.