The vagus nerve is such an important part of our bodies, and affects our overall health, yet most people have never heard of it, and doctors rarely mention it. I’d like to help you have a basic understanding of what the vagus nerve is, and how it relates to the rest of your body, so that you can take control of your own health. But…please note…I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. Most of my knowledge comes from personal experience, doing a ton of research in different places, and working with different types of practitioners over the years.
I have put the links to information that I have used directly, at the bottom of this post. If you would like to dive more deeply into this nerve, the full anatomy, and all of its functions, these are a good place to start your trip down the rabbit hole.
I originally learned about the vagus nerve about 15 years ago, when I was having issues with my digestion and energy levels.
My doctor immediately found that I was dangerously low in B12 and Folic Acid; a condition known as pernicious anemia. Several other vitamin levels were low as well. What they couldn’t figure out at first, was why. I was getting more than enough of these vitamins in my diet, but for some reason my body didn’t seem to be absorbing them. After a bunch of tests to rule other things out, they finally determined that my vagus nerve was overstimulated.
This often happens when we have long periods of stress in our lives, with no time for our bodies to recover in between.
For me, family drama from the beginning, moving over 25 times before I was 18 years old, and my mother and father dying by the time I was 11, was quite a bit of stress. By the time I was in my early 20’s, my body was rebelling. For a while, I just thought that’s how it was. But it finally got so bad that I couldn’t get up and do anything. Simply taking a shower or vacuuming the house would exhaust me to the point that I would have to take a nap.
At the time, I was given B12 shots, and Folic Acid supplements, which helped some, but no one told me that there was anything I could do to help regulate my vagus nerve; to help myself get better naturally. They pretty much told me that I would have to live with this condition forever.
Why is the vagus nerve so important?
The path of the vagus nerve is a little different in men and women. (Which is an interesting discussion in and of itself, but we won’t go into that here.) Drastically oversimplified: the vagus nerve begins in our brains, runs down near our vocal cords, into our chests, through our abdomen and digestive system, and ends in our pelvic area. It interfaces, or meets and interacts along the way, with our parasympathetic nervous system.
Our parasympathetic nervous system “regulates bodily functions which are outside of voluntary control”. It “is also referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system, as it functions to conserve the body’s natural activity, and relaxes the individual once an emergency has passed”. (1)
Thus the vagus nerve is responsible for, or attributes to, everything from your fight or flight response, to how well your body absorbs nutrients. It helps control automatic responses like our heart rate, respiratory rate, and gag reflex; but also our mood and immune response. It is the main pathway between our gut and our brain and greatly affects overall digestion. If it gets overstimulated it can even cause us to get dizzy and faint. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. (2)
So it’s easy to see how, if the vagus nerve stays overstimulated for long periods of time, and our parasympathetic nervous system can’t do its job of relaxing everything, things might start to go awry.
It would be similar to leaving a car or oven or other piece of machinery on for years without ever turning it off or doing any services. And our bodies are much more intricate than any piece of machinery. Even computers, which are designed to run practically non-stop, have to be updated and rebooted from time to time.
Oddly, there are some very simple ways to help your vagus nerve heal.
I say “oddly” because I think it’s odd that more doctors don’t share this information with their patients. It’s odd because some of these things almost seem too easy to actually do any good. And most of them…are free.
1. Meditating – sitting still, or even moving meditations
3. Gargling water
4. Deep belly breathing – or breathwork (like someone like Steven Jaggers does)
5. Humming – yep, you read that right…humming.
6. Alternate nostril breathing – (here’s my favorite how-to video)
10. Taking a cold shower, or splashing cold water on your face
12. Spending time in nature
13. Getting a massage
14. Spending time with people you love, and actually enjoy spending time with
15. Doing something nice for someone else
All of these practices help to regulate your vagus nerve, and simultaneously relieve stress.
And that’s the second part to truly healing your vagus nerve, and your body as a whole…reducing your stress levels, dealing with and releasing emotions that are stored in your body, and having mental health practices that you do regularly.
This is why things like breathwork, Qigong, and Yoga help so much…they give those emotions a chance to surface, they help you to work through them and then release them. Because if we just continue to shove them down, they get stuck in our tissues and cause us a whole host of problems later.
Which is what happened to me when I was no longer able to get up and function.
Thankfully, I found natural remedies that helped me more than I could have ever imagined.
My first step was working with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist who helped me to sort through some of the things that I had been repressing for years.
I specifically chose a CBT because I wanted someone who wouldn’t just try to give me medicine. I’m not against medicine when it’s needed, and there is no shame in taking medication regularly that helps you. For me, I knew that wasn’t what I needed. Everyone is different, and everyone’s mental health situation is different. Each person has to make their own decision about what’s right for them. This is why I always recommend that you find a professional to work with, that works WITH you and that respects what you want for your body. Not every therapist is right for every person. Find someone that you resonate with.
The next thing I did was to work on the physical part of my body.
Where I hadn’t been able to move around much, and my body wasn’t absorbing nutrients properly, my muscles were basically mush. I couldn’t jump right into a workout routine that was filled with weightlifting and hard cardio. I found a local karate school that also taught Tai Chi, and started taking classes. The slow, meditative movements were perfect for getting me started. I then moved into Yoga, and then found Qigong.
From there I added new practices in as I got stronger and my stamina grew.
My best advice when it comes to this area is: 1) take it slow…don’t just try to jump back into running miles and miles, or lifting heavy weights, 2) acknowledge and be ok with where you are now, and work from there, and 3) know that what you enjoy doing, and what you’re good at doing, may have changed – maybe you used to be able to run 10 miles a day, and lift 100-pound weights, but does your body still enjoy that? Do you still get a benefit from doing that, or are you just trying to get “back to normal”? Remember…normal changes.
As I healed, I continued to learn more about my body, about health in general, and what worked for me specifically.
The key to all of this…is to learn more.
Learn more about your own body, what foods feel right and which ones make you feel yuck. Figure out what your stress threshold is, and don’t push yourself beyond that. I know we can’t alleviate stress from our lives completely, and we wouldn’t want to. Stress serves a purpose. It can help us grow and heal if we allow it to. But we definitely need to take steps to keep it from overwhelming us completely.
And please…don’t just take my word for it on all of this, do you own research as well. I’ve linked to some of my favorites along the way, but be sure to find those people and practices that you resonate with, and add them to your daily life.
In researching, remember this: doing just one of these things rarely helps us heal completely.
Just like only taking the vitamin supplements didn’t help me, I also needed to add daily practices to help lower my stress levels. Similarly, doing talk therapy alone doesn’t usually help people to feel completely better. It’s also beneficial to add some sort of physical practice, like Qigong and breathwork, to fully release those emotions from our bodies. It all works together, and we all have to find what is right for our unique selves.
If you’d like to learn more about some of the specific practices that helped me heal, and will help you regulate your nervous system overall, you can get my E-Book “25 Simple Ways to Calm Your Nervous System” for free.
If you take anything away from the information here, I hope it’s this: You don’t have to settle for always feeling terrible, or for barely being able to function. You don’t have to hold all of those emotions in, and allow them to destroy you from the inside out. It may take some time and extra research, it may require trying a few different doctors and practices, but it’s all worth it to give yourself the best chance to have a full, happy life.