Five Foundational Habits for Health: The Vagus Nerve, Exercise the Hidden Power Within
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What’s so great about the vagus nerve? It turns out this 10th cranial nerve, also known as the “wandering nerve,” is the longest cranial nerve in our body. It branches out from the base of the brain to vital organs like the heart, lungs and digestive system, playing a critical role in regulating bodily functions. Exercising the vagus nerve through various practices can lead to a plethora of benefits, influencing our whole being.

The vagus nerve operates as a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” response. It opposes the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system. Its extensive reach impacts numerous vital functions, making it a significant player in maintaining overall health and balance. On the other hand, vagal dysfunction can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, type II diabetes, depression and anxiety.

Benefits of exercising the vagus nerve

  1. Stress reduction: regulates the body’s stress response, reducing cortisol levels and promoting relaxation, leading to reduced anxiety and an improved mood.
  2. Improved heart health: influences heart rate and blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart-related issues.
  3. Enhanced digestion: stimulates the release of digestive enzymes and promotes intestinal motility, alleviating digestive problems like bloating, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  4. Better immune function: regulates inflammation in the body and enhances immune function, reducing the risk of chronic inflammation-related diseases.
  5. Increased emotional resilience: improves emotional regulation and resilience, making it easier to cope with stress, handle difficult emotions and experience an overall sense of well-being.

Ways to exercise the vagus nerve

  1. Deep breathing techniques: practicing deep, slow breathing; consider mindfulness meditation or diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
  2. Aerobic exercises: regular aerobic activities like running, cycling, swimming or dancing, especially interval and endurance training, which also improves heart rate variability.
  3. Yoga and tai chi: combining physical movement with controlled breathing, these mind-body practices offer an ideal environment to optimize the vagus nerve.
  4. Singing and chanting: engaging in vocal exercises like singing or chanting promotes relaxation and overall well-being.
  5. Laughing: increases heart rate variability and mood; it stimulates the vagus nerve by encouraging diaphragmatic breathing. Who doesn’t love a good laugh?!
  6. Cold exposure: exposure to conditions like a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face increases vagus nerve activation and stimulates the parasympathetic system.
  7. Stretching: targeted stretching exercises that stretch and improve vagus nerve mobility, as noted below. Figure 1 is demonstrating phase 1. Tilt your head towards the left, while applying gentle overpressure with your left hand. Look in the opposite direction with your eyes. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat on the other side. Repeat 3x each side. Figure 2 demonstrates phase 2. Perform the phase 1 exercise, while adding your other hand at your waist to promote a side bend. These exercises may trigger a yawn, meaning your parasympathetic system has been activated.

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Figure 2. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

The vagus nerve serves as a powerful bridge between our physical and mental well-being. Exercising this extraordinary neural connection offers numerous benefits like stress reduction, improved heart health, enhanced digestion and emotional resilience. By incorporating vagus nerve-activating practices into our daily routines, we can tap into its hidden power and experience its profound impact. So, let us embrace the opportunity to unlock its true potential within us. Our bodies and minds will thank us for it!

 

About Author

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Dr. Crystal Whitmarsh is the owner of Whitmarsh Health and Wellness, LLC, and co-owner of Trail Creek Coffee Roasters in Kasson, Minnesota. She is a board-certified physical therapist. She was raised by a single mother in upper Michigan where she played college basketball for 4 years at Finlandia University. During that time, she found a love of serving her community which developed her servant leadership philosophy through outreach and volunteer work. After graduating in 2006 with her associate degree, she moved to Minnesota with her husband and began working as a physical therapist assistant. She continued her educational journey and completed her Bachelor’s in Exercise Science from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2010 and in 2013 she obtained her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences. She is the first female in her family to attain a terminal degree. In addition to Dr. Whitmarsh’s academic accomplishments, and while working full time and serving in her community, she and her husband opened their coffee roasting business in their home under the Minnesota cottage food exemption in 2017. During this time, she focused on advertising and networking strategies, specifically trying to collaborate with non-profit or locally run businesses. She has been engaged in multiple business-related platforms including the Women’s Entrepreneur Forum, the Chamber of Commerce, Master Networks, and The Full Circle. In January of 2023, Dr. Whitmarsh launched Whitmarsh Health and Wellness, LLC, a private physical therapy practice. Her mission is to evaluate, elevate, and empower people who desire to improve their health by optimizing their brain and body through individualized physical therapy to provide lifelong wellness.

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