Love your vagus nerve

One of the great mysteries of life, is how the vagus nerve can be so widely ignored. It’s the biggest nerve in the body and it extends from brain (starting near the carotid artery) and down through the chest cavity. It directly communicates with the lungs, heart, liver, blood vessels in the lungs, heart and gut, the stomach and small intestine, the pancreas, and the enteric nervous system, which I wrote about before.

One of the big things it does, is get the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. It balances out the whacked, adrenaline-crazed sympathetic nervous system, and gets us to chill out. It can head anxiety attacks off at the pass. It can cancel panic before gets hold of you. It tames the tigers of agitation and edginess, and soothes jangled nerves.  It It gets our proverbial runaway Prius of a system to actually stop accelerating — like shifting into neutral, or unsticking the floormat that’s wedged under our brake — and it gives our body the ability to decelerate, already.

Let’s face it, going 90 mph all day, every day… bouncing from one multi-task flurry to another is no way to live. Survive, sure — but don’t we want more than that? We eat… but do we digest? Do we even taste the food we eat? We sleep… but do we rest? When we wake up, are we even truly awake? We pump ourselves up with caffeine and sugar, then we bring ourselves down with a huge meal followed by television and/or a couple of beers. All the while, our internal system — which is built to bring us up and down appropriately on its own — is getting fried and whacked out and driven to extremes that make it forget it knows how to do this job by itself.

Honestly, people, is this any way to live?

I don’t think so.

The good news is, we’ve got a system that knows how to chill out like nobody’s business. And the techniques to get it to do that are always ready at hand, relative easy to do, and they cost absolutely NOTHING to do. No paying for a huge meal or a six-pack or a tall skinny Americano that you had to wait in line for 20 minutes to get.

It’s free. And in these days of fiscal limitation and reduced monetary means, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Oh, wait — it’s not actually free. You have to give something to get: that something is your intention and attention. You have to make an effort. It doesn’t cost money, but it costs you something even more precious and sometimes more challenging to produce — deliberate attention and regular practice.

If you’re willing to put in the effort to practice this, and you’ve got enough resolve to actually do this, it’s yours for the having.

But if you don’t want to bother… well, there’s not much I can do for you.

Okay, if you’ve decided you want to know how to make the most of your vagus nerve, here’s a picture of the Autonomic Nervous System, compliments of Scholarpedia:


You can click on it to zoom in. Check out all the parts of your body that are affected by the vagus nerve (or “nerve X” as it’s sometimes called) — that starts up in the right-hand corner of the picture, near the base of the brain.

And here’s a zoom of it, with the organs it’s connected with highlighted.

Vagus nerve connections close-up
Vagus nerve connections close-up

See all that vital stuff going on? Well, those are pieces you can’t live without, and to function properly, they need to have input from the parasympathetic as well as the sympathetic nervous system.

Everything’s connected, as we all know. But we tend to lose sight of the dualities that we need in order to get by. There seems to be a general trend towards partisanship — you’re either a Republican or a Democrat, either a conservative or a liberal… and nothing in between. Well, the human body has multiple sides, as well, but those sides need to be working together regularly and effectively, in order to have optimum health.

If Washington worked like this, we might get somewhere… but I digress…

Now, bringing balance to our systems so that we can rest and digest and allow our systems to catch up with themselves — and jump back into the fray with even more energy and resolve and focus — is a great way to live your life. And it’s not that difficult, actually.

You just breathe. Breathe deeply. Slow the breath and pay attention to the feeling of the breath moving through your nostrils and into you lungs. Fill your lungs up, so that they press against the inside of your chest cavity and stimulate the vagus nerve, which will in turn tell your system to ratchet it down a bit… send a little of the good stuff through our hormonal pathways, and reward us wonderfully for the effort we’ve put out. Do it for three breaths… or five… or ten. Do it for a minute… or two… or five. But do it. The more you try it, the more you’ll like it. I sure do.

Think of it as your reward. Stimulating the PNS with deep, controlled breathing (for me, anyway) is not about dropping out of life and running away from the fray. It’s not about being a wuss and hiding out, just breathing deeply while the rest of the world rolls on by. Quite the contrary. For me, it’s all about rewarding myself with a much-needed break, building back up my resources, so I have the energy and strength and focus and resolve to jump back into things — and do it well, in ways that are better than they were before.

Gotta love that vagus nerve!

Okay… gotta breathe…