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The Wandering Nerve

Throughout your body you have something called the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve system in your body. This is connected to everything from your brain to your, heart, lungs, bladder, gut, and more.  If damaged or dysregulated, the vagus nerve can lead to numerous issues to include heartburn, constipation, fatigue, muscle weakness, pain, and severe anxiety and panic. It can even lead to a hoarse voice, as the vagus nerve plays a role in the operation of your vocal chords. Vasovagal syncope is when one experiences fainting due to the vagus nerve overreacting to a stimulus in the environment.  Damage to or improper operation of the vagus nerve is highly correlated with poor mental health. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood related disorders. Essentially, your entire body is dependent upon the vagus nerve system to run smoothly.

The vagus nerve is responsible for managing the parasympathetic (calm) system, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and decreasing feelings of anxiety. It also impacts the digestive system and one’s overall level of calmness, so you can see how the vagus nerve is important to the management of anxiety. Things like spicy foods and alcohol can actually irritate the vagus nerve, limiting its ability to manage anxiety symptoms in the body. The vagus nerve becomes inflamed when stressed or anxious, causing changes and issues with the gut, muscles, energy levels, brain function, breathing, and blood flow.  All the things associated with anxiety and panic; stomach issues, constipation, increased heart rate, shakiness from adrenaline release, mental fogginess, increased heart rate due to blood flow changes, and even erectile dysfunction.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are all impacted by the vagus nerve. It is connected to hormone production and can stimulate the fight or flight response, impact feelings of happiness, and create an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. The vagus nerve can even impact your memories and cognition. However, stimulation of the vagus nerve can help it heal and grow.  This is a practice that has a large amount of science behind it now, and how stimulating the vagus nerve can help to manage numerous mood issues and physical symptoms.  This is accomplished by focusing on something called the vagal tone. Athletes tend to have a higher vagal tone, and those who use substances often or do not exercise have lower tones, which means they are more susceptible to illness and mental disorders.  If you have a high vagal nerve tone you are better suited to deal with stress and to calm when desired.

To learn how to manage your vagal tone, please read my other blog post titled “Tuning Your Vagal Tone" coming this week!

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