The Vagus Nerve – the self-help key to beating stress

The Vagus Nerve – the self-help key to beating stress

The Vagus nerve is one of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. Unlike almost all our other nerves that emerge from the spine (hence chiropractic’s fascination for spinal manipulation), cranial nerves emerge directly out of the brain to travel to their target tissues. The job of cranial nerves is usually of critical importance to survival. In the case of the Vagus Nerve, we have our primary mechanism for dealing with stress and its long term destructive effects.

A brief summary of all the cranial nerves and their action is as follows:

  • Cranial nerve 1 (Olfactory) travels to the sensory membranes of the nose and is involved in smell
  • Cranial nerve 2 (Optic) travels to the retina and is involved in vision
  • Cranial nerve 3 (Occulomotor) travels to most of the eye movement muscles and to the pupil or the eye
  • Cranial nerve 4 (Trochlear) travels to one of the eye movement muscles
  • Cranial nerve 5 (Trigeminal) travels to the skin of the face, cornea of the eye, mouth and part of the tongue for sensation, and also controls cranial blood vessel dilation and jaw muscle activity
  • Cranial nerve 6 (Abducens) travels to an eye movement muscle
  • Cranial nerve 7 (Facial) taste for front 2/3 of tongue, skin of the ear canal, controls muscles of facial expression and secretion from almost all glands of the head
  • Cranial nerve 8 (Vestibulaocochlear) hearing and balance structures in the skull, taste in rear of tongue, sensation of blood pressure of carotid arteries, secretion from parotid gland
  • Cranial nerve 9 (Glossopharyngeal) sensation of throat and controls swallowing
  • Cranial nerve 10 (Vagus) some taste from back of throat, some sensation from skin of the ear, sensory feedback from heart, lungs, gut; stimulate organs to function
  •  Cranial nerve 11 (Spinal Accessory) the trapezius muscle of the neck and upper back as well as the front neck muscles
  • Cranial nerve 12 (Hypoglossal) tongue control

So why single out the Vagus Nerve for special attention?


Note how all the other nerves above appear fairly local to the head and neck. Only the Vagus nerve descends all the way through the thorax and into the abdomen to innervate an extraordinary number of structures – especially the organs. The word “Vagus” comes from the latin word “to wander” (like vagabond).


In fact, it plays a crucial role in opposing the stress response (or fight-flight syndrome), by slowing and deepening breathing, by slowing heart rate, by stimulating digestion and improving circulation to the organs. It also sends vital information from the gut to the brain, is involved in enhancing memory, and recent studies have linked stimulation of the vagus to reduced inflammation throughout the body.


Stress actively inhibits the activity of the Vagus nerve, because in times of stress, your brain wants to direct all of its resources into activities necessary to escape predators, defend territory or attack opponents. This means that the brain shuts down digestion, increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and changes your breathing into rapid, shallow breaths. Blood moves out of your organs and into muscles. All this is meant to help you fight your way out of a problem and is a crucial instinct response in all animals. However, if the stress triggers are maintained long term, your adrenal glands which secrete adrenalin and cortisol become fatigued, your immune system becomes weaker and your absorption of food deteriorates, leading to illness and eventually disease.


In nature the stress response is very short, rarely lasting longer than 10-15 minutes. However, in our society we have an almost constant state of stress, albeit low-grade, that nevertheless leads to an exhausted physical, endocrine (hormone) and cardiovascular system. It is no wonder that maintaining it over long periods leads to the onset of a raft of health failures such as:


  • neurological conditions such as anxiety and panic attacks
  • musculoskeletal degeneration such as fibromyalgia, muscle and joint pain and increased inflammation
  • digestive failure such as stomach ulcers, irritable bowel diseases
  • immune failures such as allergies, asthma, eczema and frequent flus and colds
  • breathing disorders
  • cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure
  • insulin resistance
  • Sexual dysfunction and infertility
  • Mood and personality disorders


In order to combat this situation we need to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will balance the heavy skew towards fight-flight behaviour and restore health and vitality without subjecting ourselves to drugs and surgery. Stimulating Vagus nerve function has been shown to do the following:


  • Regulating thyroid hormone activity
  • Influencing appetite
  • Stimulate the parathyroid to activate Vitamin D utilisation
  • Regulate testosterone secretion and oestrogen secretion in a healthy balance
  • Improve sleep
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Improve fertility and sexual function
  • Decrease blood pressure and improve kidney function
  • Improve stomach function by influencing acid levels
  • Stimulate the secretion of Oxytocin, which improves mood, bonding with other people


How to stimulate the Vagus nerve


  • Practice slow, deep breathing exercises focussing on using your diaphragm (view our breathing exercise page here)
  • Meditation
  • Use probiotics such as the high dose, wide spectrum Bioceuticals UB70 we sell at the clinic
  • Regular light exercise such as walking, or activities such as Yoga or Tai Chi
  • Massage. Our fully qualified message therapists can help you feel relaxed calm
  • Changing your social environment – spending time with cheerful, positive people, laughter
  • Singing and humming
  • Acupuncture – at our clinic we have electronic as well as needle acupuncture available
  • Chewing and producing saliva as well as gargling
  • Lightly pressing onto your eyeballs through your eyelids for 30 seconds, several times a day
  • Washing your face with cold water regularly





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