About the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, it originates in the brainstem, and travels down each side of the neck, into the chest down to the abdomen innervating various organs along its path, including the gut. The vagus nerve is often referred to as the ‘wandering nerve’ due to its extensive and meandering path throughout the body. The term ‘vagus’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘wandering’ or ‘wandering around’ so try to think about the vagus nerve as a kind of superhighway that exchanges information through signals mainly from the body to the brain. Due to its extensive connections throughout the body, the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in the autonomic nervous system which is the part of the parasympathetic nervous system that helps us to relax; it (co)regulates stress, rest and recovery. The vagus nerve counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for activating the fight-or-flight response which triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and redirecting blood flow to the muscles and limbs. It signals the body to be ready to fight in confronting the fight immediately or escape it and flight.
'The vagus nerve is often referred to as the ‘wandering nerve’ due to its extensive and meandering path throughout the body.'
What is the fight-or-flight response?
The fight or flight response is a natural instinctive survival mechanism that we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors when faced with life threatening situations. This response became hardwired into our biology as an adaptive mechanism to increase the chances of survival in threatening situations. The fight-or-flight response is not unique to humans; it is observed in many other animals as well. It is a fundamental part of the stress response system that helps organisms react quickly and appropriately to potential dangers. While our modern-day threats may differ from those of our ancestors the fight-or-flight response remains an integral part of our physiological makeup. It can sometimes be triggered in situations – often caused by modern-day stressors including social stress, work and financial pressures – where it is not necessary or helpful, and still respond to these situations with the same basic survival mechanism inherited from our evolutionary past.
Activating the Vagus Nerve to counterbalance the fight or flight response
When we stay for too long in the fight-or-flight mode with means high levels of stress hormones it can have various effects on both our physical and mental health such as high blood pressure, suppressed immune function, sleeping problems, muscle tension, headaches, mood swings, concentration problems, lack of focus and energy, anxiety, premature aging just to name a few. To prevent these negative effects, it’s important to counterbalance the sympathetic nervous system by consciously manage and reduce our stress levels by implementing self-care strategies that can enhance the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing its the vagal tone can have a calming effect on the body. It’s important to note that this is a holistic process that requires a combination of strategies such as sensory experiences, breath work, meditation and mindfulness, cold exposure, physical exercise, getting adequate and quality sleep, positive social interactions etcetera