The Vagus Nerve and Its Impact On Your Health

The Vagus Nerve and Its Impact On Your Health

The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body, travelling from the base of the brain, through the neck and all the way through the torso. Vagus in Latin means ‘wandering’ – and if you look at the image below you’ll understand why.

The vagus nerve is important for health and wellbeing. It controls your unconscious activities including digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, and immune system, as well as conscious control of your facial expressions, desire to socialize and your resilience to stress and emotional regulation.

Low vagal tone is beginning to be researched in many chronic health conditions, including cancer, autoimmune disorders, digestive issues, migraines, anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.

What is low vagal tone?

Vagal tone is an expression of how ‘strong’ your vagus nerve is. Nerves develop resilience to stressors, and when over-run or pushed to the limit, just like everything else in our body there is always a point of fatigue.

The biggest inhibitors of vagus function are chronic stress, some infections, food intolerances and/or reactions, and TMJ (jaw) dysfunction. The last one tends to surprise most people! Neurologically the jaw has a very close connection with the vagus nerve, so any condition impacting the jaw and mouth has the ability to impact the tone of the vagus nerve. In practice, I often see a combination of all factors that inhibit the vagus nerve. We are complicated beings with many layers to our health. Nothing ever happens in isolation.

Recently, research into vagal tone and breast cancer has found that those with higher vagal tone are more likely to survive and go into remission. Vagal stimulation therapy is associated with a reduction in anxiety, depression and PTSD. After a vagal stimulation session in my practice, any patients report going home for a big sleep and feeling relaxed.

How do you increase your vagal tone?

Increasing the tone of your vagus nerve can be approached from two different ways.

Firstly (and this is my focus initially in practice), is to remove any stressors that are impacting the vagal tone. For example, ensuring jaw/TMJ function is sound, and removing any causes of chronic stress.

Secondly, there are many things you can do at home (and often I recommend you do these once we have cleared the first step). Activities that improve vagal tone include gargling, gagging, singing, continuous deep breathing, and meditation. These may help you feel better, but if you’re not removing the primary inhibitors of the vagus nerve, it is my clinical experience that you won’t get a full response.

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Dr Carrie Rigoni
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