What Is The Vagus Nerve?

lightning, black and whiteThe vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It connects your brain to many important organs including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. Physiologically, it manages your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your emotional response to danger and mental health. Therefore, it could be said that the vagus nerve is the “nerve of emotion”—everything from mild anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are likely linked to its function. It impacts whether you feel safe and it determines how you react when facing stressful and dangerous situations. It also stays in constant communication with the brain, sending signals back and forth, helping your brain to keep tabs on how your body is doing. New scientific research has discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal function, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal function, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa. Low vagral function is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression, and inflammation. Optimal vagal function means you manage stress well.

“Fight or Flight” vs. “Rest and Digest”

Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, the way in which the body reacts to stress or danger. Many, however, have never heard of the “rest and digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.

When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.

The less time we spend in the sympathetic response mode, the better. Although it makes us alert and better able to respond to the challenges ahead, it takes a huge toll on our bodies after a while and can lead to imbalances. Anything we can do to keep ourselves in the “rest and digest” mode as much as possible is worth the effort because it affects your long-term health.

Learning to activate your vagus nerve, and thus your parasympathetic nervous system, can reduce the stress on your heart, digestive system, immune system, etc. This will not only make you a happier person, it will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.

What Does The Vagus Nerve Do Exactly?

The vagus nerve has fibers that connect with virtually all of our internal organs. The management and processing of emotions happens via the vagus nerve between the heart, brain and gut, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states.

Vagus nerve dysfunction can result in a whole host of problems including obesity, bradycardia (abnormally slow heartbeat), difficulty swallowing, gastrointestinal diseases, fainting, mood disorders, B12 deficiency, chronic inflammation, impaired cough, and seizures.

Meanwhile, the vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to improve conditions such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Heart disease
  • Tinnitus
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol addiction
  • Migraines
  • Alzheimer's
  • Leaky gut
  • Bad blood circulation
  • Mood disorders
  • Cancer

The Vagus Nerve flows throughout the body to perform the following tasks:

  • Keeps the larynx open for breathing – feeds the lungs and diaphragm
  • Slows/regulates the heartbeat
  • Stimulates the secretion of saliva, release of bile, and peristalsis (contraction) of the bowels
  • Contracts the bladder
  • Sends messages to the brain to produce/release Oxytocin (feel-good/bonding hormone)
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Reduces stress and inflammation
  • Increases immunity and longevity
Energetically, the Vagus Nerve can:
  • Balance the nervous system – the sympathetic (fight/flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and repair) branches of the nervous system, with more emphasis on relaxation
  • Balance the heart and brain, which creates harmony that supports higher states of awareness/consciousness
  • Develop our compassion, telepathy, and empathy towards others
  • Develop our intuition or “gut knowing”
  • Develop our connection with others and the world (how we relate to each other)

Suspect you may have low vagal function? Book a healing session to trigger your body’s natural healing abilities.

The Vagus Nerve can be overactive as well as underactive. Most people have an underactive Vagus, also known as lacking vagal tone, because we are often in stress response, whether from internal stress (fighting infections, stressful thoughts) or external stress (traffic jams, news, arguments). If the vagus nerve is overactive, we may become overly sensitive and emotional. The nerve can be damaged or underdeveloped through trauma or insufficient production of oxytocin, which is first produced through bonding with our caregivers as an infant.

In Conclusion

The vagus nerve plays a critical role in influencing your stress response, mood, immune function, digestion, and heart rate.

It also serves as the chief link in the relationship between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. These roles mean the vagus nerve is a modulator of various psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which are increasingly being linked to gastrointestinal problems and inflammation.

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.

Want to unlock the powers of your Vagus Nerve? Read: 8 Ways To Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve For Emotional Intelligence



Writer and director @DoronMaxHagay discusses what led him to making films, why therapy and healthy self-acceptance can be a boon to your creative process, and what he's learned from working on @nbcsnl



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