The Vagus nerve. Does it act as a sort of radar and does it influence how we relate with others and our world?
by Dr. Graham
How do we know that the person we just met is ok? What tells us how welcoming to be towards someone? How do we decide if this new activity is safe to do? And what is the mechanism for close bonding?
With mental and emotional health hand in hand as key drivers of health, and apparently increasing numbers of children (and adults) affected by anxiety – I want to share with you my current literature research on how to help stay well from the inside > out > in. What I mean is to have a healthy regulatory and self – feedback system that guides us towards the right people, foods, activities, music, culture, foster-worthy thoughts, and stories that are just right for each of us. That is to say, to the things that ADD TO our energy, robust health and vital life force when we engage with them. As we know, when we take on things that are wrong for us, especially over a long period, we run ourselves down. So, as adults we want to choose what is good for us AND help guide our young ones in those choices – remembering that we are all unique individuals with individual needs.
Many current wellness researchers are now highlighting the importance of the vagus nerve that provides a major pathway for self awareness and self regulation. The vagus is a huge nerve that starts at the base of the brain on both sides, exits the skull and supplies the sinuses – throat – then travels through the chest and into the gut, supplying the lungs – heart – diaphragm – stomach – spleen – kidneys – liver – pancreas – intestines. Wow! What a big job the vagus nerve has! To quote a Dad-joke from one of the researchers: “What happens in Vagus does not stay in Vagus” – that’s because there are so many organs “on the grid” that can be affected in either a good or bad way by vagus nerve activity. The vagus nerve promotes healthy bowel activity and slows heart rate when it’s too high. Low vagus nerve “tone” (or function) can cause problems…….
The thing is, because the vagus nerve covers so much territory, there are many chances for it to be adversely affected along its course by two key things:-
1. Physical pressure: nerves DO NOT work well with excess pressure. Excess pressure can be exerted where the nerve travels through restricted anatomy, eg where it exits the skull (through a very small hole), or in the throat region.
2. Chemistry: nerves DO NOT give good information back to the brain when there is inflammation. The vagus nerve plays a big role in managing inflammation and our immune system response. To respond for our best health, the brain needs accurate information.
Retained Neonatal Reflexes treatment addresses the vagus nerve
It continues to amaze me that science often takes a while to catch up with time-honored wellness practices. Dr Keith Keen (founder of the Retained Neonatal Reflexes (RNR) technique) developed a treatment aimed at helping better vagus nerve function over 20 years ago. If you have been to one of my talks you will recognise that a practice of releasing pressure on the vagus nerve is addressed in the integration of the Fear Paralysis Reflex. I have used this treatment for more than 10 years with very good results helping mostly children (recently now there are more adults coming for the treatment too) reduce anxiety and modify their stress response to become more situation -appropriate. In that time, new developments have been added for greater effect.
Some people having RNR sessions may take longer to settle than others. Colleagues and I think this is a reflection of the brain > gut connection I mentioned, and some kids have more challenges with this than others, depending on birthing and other factors that may have caused trauma. Imagine the following scenario: A small child who has met you several times and likes or loves you, comes to visit. Recognition means they are happy to see you at first but they then run away or hide their face. Their higher brain has let them know you are familiar and safe – but because of lower vagal tone the vagus nerve has not kicked in sufficiently to regulate their heart rate – so the excitement they feel at first seeing you has not been “hand-braked”. Their system then performs as if it is a first meeting. Their heart keeps pounding in their chest to the point their survival system over-rides any initial “ok” feeling and puts resulting increased energy into the flight mode – they take off. This leaves us scratching our heads and feeling perplexed as to why………..
From stressed out towards chilled out: natural at- home solutions.
Do you know someone who struggles with :
• Fear of or big resistance towards change (especially of routine).
• Being withdrawn
• Immune system chronically run down (constant infections)
• Chronic gut problems?
Experts’ advice on how to help balance your vagus nerve
There are practices that change or influence structures through which the vagus passes can balance nerve function via scientifically evidenced mind-body feedback loops. Indirect vagus nerve stimulation can be done in the following ways:
1. Humming – hum your favorite tune. Yoga people might want to do the “Om”. These exercise the throat muscles and vocal chords.
2. Conscious breathing – move the belly and diaphragm, slow your breath rate from the normal 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 bpm. Do this by counting to 5 as you inhale, holding briefly, then exhaling over 10 counts. As you exhale, breathe as though you are trying to fog a mirror.
3. Connection – call a friend. Allow yourself to be playful. Do your favourite creative thing.
Other things that can help
Activate your diving reflex! Yep, get that cold water on your face from the lip line to the scalp line. This slows the heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain and reduces anger! (Brrrr)
Having very gentle massage on the face and neck with a favorite essential oil while listening to Baroque music or your favorite relaxing music. ( I think I’ll choose that one please).
Dr David Snarch says “Hug until relaxed”. “Stand on your own two feet, place your arms around your hugging partner, focus on your self (breathing) and quiet your self down, way down”.
Eat food that is gut friendly: That means the food is non inflammatory and promotes lots of healthy gut bugs. Please ask us about that if you need guidance.
Gentle rocking, known as rhythmic rocking: if the person, you or your child; lays prone on a Swiss ball with knees on the floor, arms to each side and gently rocks in a forward – back motion while breathing with awareness, this may calm the person and help them feel safer to listen to their body’s feelings. Otherwise known as feeling more “grounded”. Swings and rocking chairs can also be used. It is thought the rocking motion activates the relaxation part of the nervous system and releases lots of “feel-good” hormones.
As you can see, there can be a lighter side to de-stressing, it can be flipped to fun mode; in fact if possible, that’s where it works best. I know that some people face big challenges in this area so taking first steps can be the most difficult part. That’s when professional help can be indicated and where possible, I and we at Spectrum are committed to helping people restore balance in their lives.
1. Keen, Keith. “Retained Neonatal Reflexes”. Their part in learning and behaviour. 2011.
2. Porges, Stephen. “The Polyvagal Theory”. Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. 2011.
3. Schwatrz, Dr. Arielle. “The Complex PTSD Workbook. A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole” 2016.