The vagus nerve is our relaxation superhighway and carries messages throughout the body to counterbalance the fight or flight system. It is one of the cranial nerves that connect the brain to the body and activates the parasympathetic nervous system - our inbuilt relaxation tool.
The Latin root of the word vagus is “wandering.” This is a vital characteristic of this little gem within the world of relaxation. It begins its journey below the brain’s base, roams down the throat along the oesophagus, continues its sojourn near the lungs and heart, and innervates the digestive system.
The vagus nerve prevents inflammation – alerting the brain to send anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters around the body. A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal. But an overabundance is linked to many diseases and conditions, from sepsis to the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis.
It helps you make memories – stimulating the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala, consolidating memories.
It raises the level of endorphins, which bring about positive feelings in the body and reduce the sensation of pain.
The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses.
It initiates your body’s relaxation response – the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. Its tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fibre–optic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down.
It translates between your gut and your brain. Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you’re feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials”. Your gut feelings are very real.
Overstimulation of the vagus nerve is the most common cause of fainting. If you tremble or get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a flu shot, you’re not weak; you’re experiencing “vagal syncope.” Your body, responding to stress, overstimulates the vagus nerve, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to drop.