The Amazing Vagus Nerve

Over the past five years I have been getting craniosacral treatments at least a few times a year. Also over the past five years I have noticed that overall, I am a much calmer person. I respond better to stress and I am able to relax quicker in stressful situations. My ability to go from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” is like a light switch. If I notice it is “on” I take a breath and turn it “off” and feel my body relax. I have always attributed this to craniosacral therapy and now research is starting to show why. 

The human body is made up of millions of nerves. In a very simplified version these whitish fibers or bundles of fibers send information to the brain or spinal cord. The brain interprets this information and then uses nerves to send motor information to the rest of the body including muscles and organs. There are twelve nerves that are housed in the brain and these are called cranial nerves. They arise directly from the brain, pass through the skull and communicate with the body without using the spinal column. Each one is a pair and runs down either the right or left side of the body. Each cranial nerve is responsible for a specific job within the body.

The “wondering” nerve, the vagus nerve, or the 10th cranial nerve, is the longest of these nerves. It starts in the brainstem just behind the ears. It travels out of the skull, down each side of the neck and travels to the muscles of the throat, the heart, the stomach, the transverse colon (gut), spleen, liver, and kidney. This important nerve helps us to breath, talk, swallow, monitors and regulates the heartbeat, and communicates to the brain during digestion. The vagus nerve is mostly sensory meaning it tells your brain what the organs in your body are doing without us thinking about it.

The vagus nerve plays a very big role in the parasympathetic system. When you go into “fight or flight” mode it is the vagus nerve that calms your organs down so that you can go back into “rest and digest” mode. It is important to go into fight mode when you are in danger, but in todays world we are having a difficult time relaxing back into the “calm” phase within our bodies. Research is now showing that people actually have a stronger vagal response meaning some people can relax quicker after a stressful event.

The ability for your vegus nerve to respond and relax quicker is called vagal tone. A high vagal tone has been shown in research to reduce the likelihood of certain diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. People with high vagal tone are also more socially and psychologically stable.  Low vagal tone is starting to be linked in research to high inflammation. One of the many jobs of the vagus nerve is to turn off production of inflammation after an injury or stress. With low vagal tone, the body does not turn off the inflammation, making levels too high in the body.

In addition to vagal tone this fascinating nerve is also responsible for “gut instincts”. When you experience fear, it sends information from the viscera in the guts to the brain. Overactive responses in the gut can lead to increased and prolonged fear and anxiety. The brain responds by keeping the body in “fight of flight” and our guts cannot relax. In short, healthy vagus nerve communication to the brain gives your body the ability to slow down and not be anxious. Physiologically this decreases heart rate and blood pressure. The ability to stay calm under pressure and overcome fear confirms the importance of healthy vagal tone.

Vagal tone is genetic, but research is also showing that those who exercise and take time to meditate increased their vagal tone over a nine week period. So vagal tone can change from low to high, meaning one’s ability to relax quicker can change. How long it takes the light switch to go from on to off can become quicker!

What does this have to do with craniosacral therapy? Not only does craniosacral therapy directly impact the fight or flight response and bring the parasympathetic system into rest and digest during and after treatment, simple treatment sessions can bring the skull into alignment (specifically the occipital bone which can impinge or create restrictions where the vagus nerve comes out of the skull). With an aligned skull the vagus nerve can freely communicate and move without impingements from the brain to the rest of the body. Craniosacral therapy can release restrictions in the fascia, muscles, viscera, and organs within the body so the vagus nerve can move freely and communicate 80-90% of it’s sensory information to the brain. Without impingements or restrictions the body can communicate better and vagal tone can be improved. Lastly, somatoemotional release may be used to decrease anxiety and fear, creating a sense of well being, similar to meditation, again increasing vagal tone.

It is amazing to me what my body knows to feel good and be true is starting to be researched in medical studies. Now I can say with confidence that I am a calmer person (my vagal tone is high!) and this is due to my lifestyles changes of including craniosacral therapy into my life on a regular basis. May you be intrigued to do the same.

References:

Business Insider “There’s a single nerve that connects all your vital organs- and it might just be the future of medicine.” June 1, 2015 http://www.businessinsider.com/vagus-nerve-stimulation-2015-6

Psychology Today “How does the vagus nerve convey gut instincts to the brain?” May 23, 2014 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201405/how-does-the-vagus-nerve-convey-gut-instincts-the-brain

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