Why is the Vagus Nerve so important for relaxation?
The vagus nerve sends branches of parasympathetic fibres to tissues and organs all around the
body (as shown in the diagram). It is connected to nerve cells that influence how we perceive social
skills like eye contact, speech, recognizing facial expressions, and regulation of emotional responses.
Dr Steven Porges discovered in his work with the vagus nerve, that as humans we have evolved over time
to operate in the modern world in the social portion of our brain. In this portion we are constantly checking for cues in our environment, with assistance from all the tissues and organs linked to the vagus nerve,
to ensure that all is well in our social environments and that we are not in imminent danger.
The vagus nerve continually sends messages about the state of our body including our sensations, emotions or gut feelings up to the brain. Likewise,the brain also sends information down to the gut, telling it that it is safe torest and digest or get ready for fight or flight to deal with threatening situations. The vagus nerve has two branches. A myelinated branch that is the newest ‘modern day’ branch that helps us engage in our social
interactions and promotes relaxation by inhibiting the sympathetic fight or flight ready for action influence on the heart. The other branch of the vagus nerve is the unmyelinated older branch which is our primitive Freeze
response. All of this process is subconscious.
If we encounter a stressful upsetting situation, or even just imagine an impending situation (angry boss, exam, needle, flying, upsetting or painful sexual encounter….etc….etc…) our adrenal glands release a chemical
called epinephrine. Epinephrine is too large to pass over the blood-brain barrier, but our vagus nerve can transport it to the brain via vagus nerve fibres that go to the brain. These fibres stimulate brain neurons, which then release norepinephrine into the memory centres of the brain known as the amygdala and hippocampus. When the amygdala and hippocampus are stimulated, they store specific details of the emotionally arousing
experiences into long-term storage. The more highly emotionally arousing or significant the event is, especially if it is life-threatening, the more the brain will strengthen and reinforce the neural pathways to it. If our memory banks reminds us that this event is a threat to our wellbeing, our brain then prepares to protect our survival by setting off the fight or flight response. If we are in any way compromised and there is absolutely no way of escape, even though logically submission may not be in our best interests, we switch into FREEZE response. Freeze is totally involuntary, we have absolutely no control over it. A prolonged stressful environment, coupled with unresolved emotional baggage that we have not cleared from our memory banks, blinkers our
perception making us even more prone to see events as threatening, which further strengthens negative neural pathways that don’t serve our highest good. As we are living in a state of impending threat we are
constantly churning out unhealthy level of stress hormones preparing us for fight or flight instead of a healthier efficient rest and digest environment for our body. The optimal healthy functioning of our tissues and organs is compromised lowering our immunity, making us susceptible to disease, impairing functioning of our DNA, and aging us before our time Remember, because epinephrine cannot pass the blood brain barrier, it is the the vagus nerve that decides how well it will deliver the epinephrine to the brain to search the memory bank for possible threat so it can stimulate the fight or flight response. Even though all of this is a subconscious process, because of the neuroplasticity of the brain, you can actively influence and ‘tone’ the vagal nerve to
inhibit the fight or flight response yourself. If you have a high vagal nerve tone, you are able to recover quickly from stressful, upsetting situations. A low vagal nerve tone, means you will be hypervigilant, on high alert for perceived threat, which means you have a low threshold for stress.
How Stimulating & Toning the Vagus Nerve Helps Us
GUT Increases stomach acidity, digestive juices and gut flow.
Improving the tone can help with food sensitivities,
inflammation and gut problems
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY High vagal tone helps to overcome
autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis,
HEART Controls heart rate variability, and blood pressure.
The more you can increase vagus tone (activate it) the lower
will be your risk for heart disease and stroke. The vagus
nerve inhibits the fight or flight influence on the heart.
LIVER & PANCREAS Controls balance and storage of blood
glucose levels, increasing tone can lower chance of diabetes
GALLBLADDER Reduces toxins and breaks down fat due to
its ability to influence release of bile
BRAIN Helps control anxiety and depression. Increases
concentration and processing of information
STRESS Allows better mood and greater resilience to stress
SOCIAL SKILLS Enhances connection and empathy with
SEX & ORGASM The vagus nerve has branches in the anal
sphincter, cervix, uterus and vagina. Increasing vagus tone
increases the propensity to achieve orgasm not just in the
genitals, but in various parts of the body, and heightens the
length and degree of intensity of an orgasm. Because the
vagus nerve bypasses the spinal cord, even women who are
paraplegic, can still achieve cervical orgasms.