Let’s talk about one of the most important parts of your body, which people often know nothing about.
The vagus nerve.
Sounds kind of fun, doesn’t it? But unlike the other Vegas, what happens in the vagus doesn’t stay there, in fact, it can have a profound impact on your overall health and wellbeing.
For busy founders, it may interest you to know that the vagus nerve plays a big role in your overall performance, including things like your “gut feeling” which leads you into some of your decisions.
You should also know that yes, it is possible to “hack the system.” Let’s take a look:
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve plays a very important role in the body, yet most people have barely heard of it. It is a long bundle of motor and sensory fibres, running from the brainstem, and extending down the neck, chest and abdomen. This nerve interacts with a number of vital organs or systems, including the heart, lungs, gut, liver, spleen and kidneys.
Vagus means “wandering” in Latin, which is fitting for a nerve which meanders down the body. It is the most complex of 12 pairs of cranial nerves emanating from the brain, and transmits information from the brain to the tissues and organs it reaches.
The vagus nerve is busy. There are multiple nervous system functions which it or its related parts are responsible for. A huge role is its contribution to the parasympathetic nervous system.
We can break down the functions of the vagus nerve into four key areas:
- Parasympathetic – This is responsible for bodily functions while we are at rest. Think of things like digestion, metabolic processes, and heart rate. It has also been described as the “feed and breed” or “rest and digest” system for its role in salivation, sexual arousal, digestion and urination.
- Sensory – This processes sensory information from the heart, lungs, abdomen and throat.
- Motor – The vagus nerve provides movement to the neck muscles that are responsible for speech and swallowing.
- Special sensory – It provides taste sensation behind the tongue.
There are many vital functions which are impacted by the vagus nerve, for example; keeping a constant heart rate, breathing, sweating, regulating blood pressure and blood glucose, promoting kidney function, fertility and the ability of women to reach orgasm. It sends information about the state of your inner organs to your brain.
Basically, it is helping with major functions that keep us alive.
What happens when the vagus nerve isn’t operating well?
A little research into the vagus nerve finds a whole host of conditions that have either been positively linked, or are currently being investigated for a link to the nerve. These range from minor annoyances to major issues. Of course, if you are impacted anywhere on a spectrum, it can affect your overall feeling of wellbeing and general performance.
Most people will experience a vasovagal response due to a stressor or overstimulation of the vagus nerve at some point. Blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows, and the blood vessels in your legs widen, which can cause nausea or fainting. This is a generally harmless response which goes away on its own, however, some people who experience it more chronically may need to seek medical help.
Some other problems linked with vagus nerve dysfunction include: obesity, anxiety, mood disorders, bradycardia, gastrointestinal diseases, chronic inflammation, fainting and seizures.
Of course, most of these conditions outlined can lead to further illness, for example, obesity and inflammation are both linked with cancers and diabetes. Anxiety or mood disorders might also lead to depression.Your vagus nerve plays a key role in your overall wellbeing and performance Click To Tweet
How does “hacking” the vagus work?
There is a growing body of research to suggest that we can manipulate or “hack” the vagus nerve. Vagus hacks date back to some research conducted in 1998 by Kevin Tracey. Through his work, he discovered that by stimulating the vagus nerve with an electrical impulse, he could reduce the body’s inflammatory response.
This has positive implications for the treatment of conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Tracey’s research forms the basis of the idea for bioelectronics, which we now see treating conditions such as depression and epilepsy.
Outside of those conditions, inflammation is a response that we all have in our bodies, often as a result of stress. For some people (hey there, entrepreneurs!), that stress and inflammatory response can become chronic, leading to other health issues.
The vagus nerve is linked to so many different functions, that there are more “hacks” than having a bioelectric device implanted to stimulate it (this is usually only for extreme cases). In fact, researchers have found that we can combat inflammation by engaging the vagus nerve and improving “vagal tone” – kind of like a workout! Let’s look at what you can be doing:
Work on your emotional health
A 2010 study discovered that a high vagal tone was part of a feedback loop between physical health, positive emotions and positive social connections. These factors influence one another with a self-sustaining dynamic.
During the experiment, participants used Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) as a way to positively impact their emotional health. The researchers also found that when people reflected on positive social connections or worked to improve their bonds with other humans, it had a beneficial impact on vagal tone.
The takeaway: Engage in activities which promote positive emotions and social connection. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness activities and bonding with others can help.
Work on gut health
Did you know that “gut feeling” is a real thing? Signals from the vagus nerve travel from the gut to the brain. This has been linked to modulating mood and some types of fear and anxiety. A sign of healthy vagal tone is someone who has grace under pressure – a trait most entrepreneurs could use!
Your vagus nerve is constantly sending updated sensory information about the state of your body’s organs, digestive tract, heart rate and other information, up to your brain via different nerves. There is research to show that our gut microbes and those pathways to the brain are interlinked. It is also thought that gut microbiota are the potential key modulator of the immune and the nervous systems. Therefore, maintaining a healthy gut is a vagus “hack.”
The takeaway: Gut health varies from person to person and depends on how you are built, but in general you can: take probiotics, eat a healthy, balanced diet of whole foods, avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics, and moderate consumption of sugary foods or alcohol. As a further note, while probiotics are still being explored for their potential, a Canadian study found them to be an effective PTSD treatment. There are also implications for the treatment of stress – exploring whether you can benefit from taking them may be a simple step you can take.
Use breathing techniques
Breathing techniques entered Western consciousness somewhere around the 1970s, but Eastern practitioners have been using these strategies for millenia. It turns out there is solid science behind deep breathing – you can both stimulate the vagus nerve and improve your heart rate variability (HRV).
It is now widely accepted that deep breathing plays a core role in maintaining a healthy physiological balance. In an article reporting on a 2014 study, it is stated:
“Lehrer and Gevirtz explore a wide range of fascinating reasons that HRV biofeedback works, and reaffirm that diaphragmatic breathing is part of a feedback loop that improves vagal tone by stimulating the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Notably, the researchers also report that people with a higher HRV (which represents healthy vagal tone) showed lower biomarkers for stress, increased psychological and physical resilience, as well as better cognitive function.”
Deep, abdominal breathing has also been shown to reduce that “fight or flight” response during stressful situations.
The takeaway: Use deep breathing techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve. It doesn’t matter which sort you use:
“…any type of deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing—during which you visualize filling up the lower part of your lungs just above your belly button like a balloon…and then exhaling slowly—is going to stimulate your vagus nerve, activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and improve your HRV.” (source).
The vagus nerve plays a vital role in our overall health and wellbeing. As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably felt the effects of the physiological responses it governs without even realizing it – particularly during stressful periods.
“Hacking” your vagus nerve is really about adopting a few healthy practices that keep it stimulated and working optimally. There are more techniques we could dive into, but those listed are some of the simplest to implement, and have solid scientific backing. You can take deep breaths from your office!
If you do happen to suffer from one of the more chronic inflammatory conditions, vagus nerve stimulation through electrical impulses shows a lot of promise. This may be something to investigate, and raise with your medical professional.