The Wandering Nerve
There’s a single nerve that connects all of your vital organs and it might just be the future of medicine
A new treatment was being developed that would lead to research into how we might use our minds to stave off disease. If Tracey was right, inflammation in body tissues was being directly regulated by the brain. Because the vagus nerve, like all nerves, communicates information through electrical signals, The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears. It travels down each side of the neck, across the chest and down through the abdomen. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering’ and indeed this bundle of nerve fibres roves through the body, networking the brain with the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices. It is made of thousands and thousands of fibres and 80 per cent of them are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve reports back to your brain what is going on in your organs. Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger. Not all vagus nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagus activity, which means their bodies can relax faster after a stress. The vagus nerve works as a two-way messenger, passing electrochemical signals between the organs and the brain low vagal tone, whose physical and mental health could benefit from giving it a boost? Low vagal tone is associated with a range of health risks, whereas people with high vagal tone are not just healthier, they’re also socially and psychologically stronger – better able to concentrate and remember things, happier and less likely to be depressed, more empathetic and more likely to have close friendships.
It has the potential to completely change how we view disease.
“Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive.”
tone is associated with a range of health risks, whereas people with high vagal tone are not just healthier, they’re also socially and psychologically stronger – better able to concentrate and remember things, happier and less likely to be depressed, more empathetic and more likely to have close friendships. Stimulate The Vagus Nerve with Bhramari and Shanmukhi Mudra Bliss arises in the heart, Regular practice of bhramari pranayama. Rewiring the brains of children and adults who lack safety, self-regulation, capacity for play, and executive functioning. As I remembered from anatomy, the vagus nerve (cranial nerve x) innervates the diaphragm but what failed to register in class is that the vagus nerve also innervates much of our viscera – in fact all of our internal organs with the notable exception of the adrenal glands. It supplies parasympathetic fibers to these organs, meaning that the vagus nerve is a “rest and digest” nerve, not a fight or flight nerve. Van der Kolk quotes from Darwin’s work, “the heart, guts and brain communicate intimately via a nerve” – the pneumogastric or vagus nerve – “the critical nerve in the expression and management of emotions in both humans and animals…. When the mind is strongly excited it instantly affects the state of the viscera.” This is, of course, why our guts react strongly to our emotional state. You cannot directly and consciously stimulate your vagus nerve like you would with an electrical device. But you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve by getting yourself into the rest-and-digest mode because this nerve gets activated during the parasympathetic response. Remember which parts of your body the vagus nerve branches out to? It goes to your throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs (not the large skeletal muscles). Which of those parts do you have control over? You cannot consciously control your heart, your kidneys or your small intestine, but you can control the depth of your breathing (to a certain degree) and the muscles of your larynx (that open and close the vocal cords and control the pitch of sound), which the branches of the vagus nerve also happen to innervate. So then it would make sense that to facilitate the parasympathetic response in the body (and stimulate the vagus nerve), we would need to exert influence over those two main areas.
When your mind perceives something dangerous or stressful it activates the sympathetic nervous system which dumps adrenalin and other stress hormones into your body and your body responds the blood pulls toward large skeletal muscles, you begin to breathe faster and so on. So your body is now ready to “fight or flight” and sends a signal of readiness to your brain. The brain perceives that your body is wound up and interprets it as confirmation that there is real danger present and continues with the stress response, which, in turn, keeps the body in a fight-or-flight mode, which then sends those stress signals back to the brain and so the cycle goes on and on. To break out of the loop you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest mode) and there are two ways to do it – to convince your mind that there is no more danger or to stop the biological stress response so that the body signals the mind that it is no longer in a fight-or-flight mode. What’s important to us here is that the vagus nerve would communicate both of those messages, since it is responsible for most of parasympathetic messaging both from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain. And since 80% of its fibers communicate the information from the body to the brain, one could argue that the state of the body (whether it’s agitated or calm) has a great impact on the state of the mind.
The breath is probably the single best way to affect the autonomic nervous system, which in turn controls the function of every internal organ, as well as systems like digestion and immunity.
The noise of bhramari’s buzzing can drown out the endless mental tape loops that can fuel emotional suffering, making it a useful starting point for those whose minds are too “busy” to meditate.
Bhramari, a safe, easy-to-learn practice, has tremendous therapeutic potential. Like other pranayamas, its power comes partly from its effects on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Lengthening the exhalation relative to the inhalation activates the calming parasympathetic branch of the ANS. For those who suffer from anxiety or anxious (rajasic) depression, the practice can begin to quiet the mind within a few breaths. The noise of bhramari’s incessant buzzing can drown out the endless mental tape loops that can fuel emotional suffering, at least for a few minutes, making it a useful starting point for those whose minds are too “busy” to meditate.
Bhramari pranayama, or honeybee breathing, is one of the few yogic practices that connects breath, sound, and posture. The fingers are placed in a special mudra that closes off the senses while the buzzing “mmmm” sound of a bee is made with each exhalation.
The sound waves gently vibrate the vocal chords, teeth, lips, and even the brain, reverberating energy around the third eye chakra (ajna). This balances the nervous system and produces immediate feelings of mental clarity, making honeybee breathing a powerful pranayama practice.
Time to catch your breath Bhramari pranayama can be practiced at any time, although early mornings are most beneficial. The same goes for all yoga. The two hours before sunrise are especially sattvic and awaken psychic sensitivity. It’s also helpful to practice honeybee breathing before meditation, as it brings your awareness inward.
Step by Step
1) Sit comfortably with the spine straight.
2) Close the eyes. Close the lips, separating the teeth slightly. Take three natural breaths.
3) Bring the hands near the face for six-gated mudra (shanmukhi). Press the flaps of the ears in with the thumbs, and gently rest the index fingers on the inner eyelids. Rest the middle fingers above the nostrils, the ring fingers above the lips, and the pinky fingers below the lips.
4) Take a natural inhalation. 5) Exhale slowly while making a soft, mellow humming sound like a bee. The sound should continue for the whole length of the exhalation. This completes one round.
6) Repeat the steps above five more times to practice six full rounds of breath