Like to sing? Turns out not only is it fun, but it could actually improve your health. Singing—along with other simple activities—exercises the vagus nerve, which then improves important biological functions from the brain to the gut.
The vagus nerve is part of the nervous system often referred to as the “rest and digest” system. It physically connects the brain to our gut or “second brain”. Interestingly, “vagus” in Latin means “wandering,” which is fitting since this nerve is not only involved in the brain/gut connection, but also interacts with the heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, urethra, spleen, lungs, ovaries, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, ears, and tongue as well as glands that produce anti-stress enzymes and hormones.
How does it affect our health?
To see how important the vagus nerve is, check out this excerpt from Dr. Sircus, OMD: “The vagus nerve uses the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. If our brain cannot communicate with our diaphragm via the release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve, then you will stop breathing.” That got my attention!
Vagus nerve can affect function in any place that it innervates, meaning vagal dysfunction can lead to a wide range of symptoms such as:
- Vomiting of undigested food
- Early feeling of fullness when eating
- Weight loss
- Abdominal bloating
- Stomach spasms
- Erratic blood glucose (sugar) levels
- Difficulty swallowing, gag reflex issues
- Urinary issues such as incontinence
- Vocal tone issues
- Lack of appetite
- Spasms of the stomach wall
- Food sensitivities
- Brain fog
It’s also common for folks with vagal issues to have problems with their digestion. The vagus nerve controls the movement of food through the digestive tract. If the nerve is damaged, the muscles of the stomach and intestines do not work normally, and the passage of food is slowed. This is called gastroparesis, which in Latin means “stomach paralysis.” This disorder often affects folks with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. When the vagus nerve has been compromised due to high blood sugar or some other cause, it affects the muscles of the stomach and intestine, making them unable to efficiently process food. This may cause low stomach acid, low digestive enzymes, and susceptibility to infections such as SIBO.
Since our vagus nerve ties the gut and brain together, it’s no surprise that issues with gut can affect our mental health. According to Dr. Alex Vasquez DC, ND, DO, “90% of the vagal fibres between the gut and brain are afferent, suggesting that the brain is more of a receiver than a transmitter with respect to brain-gut communication.” This means our microbiome becomes a major player in brain health. Our microbiome creates compounds that travel the vagus to the brain, both good and bad. If there is some form of dysbiosis, gut inflammation or gut infection; allergens and toxins may then travel up the vagus nerve, damaging it along the way, and create openings in the blood brain barrier which can lead to brain inflammation. Lesson to be had here—eat your veggies to maintain a diverse microbiome!
Blood Sugar Regulation
Scientists understand the importance of a healthy vagus nerve even if standard medicine does not want to embrace it. Vagal tone is important in blood sugar regulation so I found the following patent application to be pretty darn interesting: “Treatment of Endocrine Disorders by Nerve Stimulation.” This may be a way to replace insulin injections in the near future.
“An electrical stimulator implanted into or worn externally to the patient’s body is adapted, when activated, to generate a programmable electrical waveform for application to electrodes implanted on the vagus nerve of the patient.
“The electrical waveform is programmed using parameter values selected to stimulate or inhibit the vagus nerve to modulate the electrical activity thereof to increase or decrease secretion of natural insulin by the patient’s pancreas.
“The stimulator is selectively activated manually by the patient in response to direct measurement of blood glucose or symptoms or is activated automatically by programming the activation to occur at predetermined times and for predetermined intervals during the circadian cycle of the patient.
“Alternatively, the automatic activation is achieved using an implanted sensor to detect the blood glucose concentration and is triggered when the patient’s blood glucose concentration exceeds or falls below a predetermined level depending on whether diabetes or hypoglycemia is being treated.”
Pretty cool, huh? I imagine this could be used for all kinds of vagus nerve dysfunction, from gut infections to migraines to incontinence. Now, that is medical science!
Dr. Stephen Porges introduced a stress model known as the Polyvagal Theory. Until recently, we believed that the autonomic nervous system was divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system is our fight/flight response and the parasympathetic system our rest/digest function.
His idea is that our vagus nerve is actually made up of two nerves from different areas of the brain that although fused together, serve different roles. The nervous system can now be divided into 3 parts:
- The ventral vagal system
- The sympathetic nervous system
- The dorsal vagal system
The ventral vagal response is when we feel safe and everything is going along just fine. When things start to get a bit stressful, our classic sympathetic fight-or-flight response is initiated. Finally, when the stress response isn’t working and we just can’t deal with another physical or mental trauma, the dorsal vagal activates (and downregulates the other two responses) which forces us to metabolically “freeze”. This response can be associated with signs and symptoms of giving up, both mentally and physically.
According to Dr. Nathan, MD, the perception of safety is hard-wired into our nervous system. The body will continue to operate as if under threat until the nervous system convinced that it is safe. No amount of rationalization will change it. As time goes on, “…the prolonged strain of a serious illness takes its toll on the autonomic nervous system, and it loses its ability to self-regulate. This can take the form of POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome), palpitations, labile hypertension (blood pressure that without warning becomes very high or very low), or anxiety.”
What can you do to improve your vagus nerve?
Vagus nerve exercises really do work. An elderly woman I know very well was embarrassed by periods of incontinence. Since she also had weak muscles from long periods of sitting, we purchased a Vibrator platform to exercise her legs and to see how that would affect her vagus nerve. Within one month, her incontinence was improved by 30% and she was easily getting out of chairs from a sitting position. Another aged client spent 10 minutes per day for 2 weeks using the Vibrator platform and experienced complete remission of a decade of neck pain. Keep in mind, this platform could generate EMF for those sensitive.
Besides a machine, the following are a few simple things may help strengthen the vagus nerve:
- Gagging with a tongue depressor
- Immersing your face in ice-cold water (diving reflex)
- Bearing down as if having a bowel movement
- Singing loudly
- Gargling until your eyes tear
- Doing slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing
- Chanting or Kundalini yoga
- Balancing gut microbiota