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The Vagus Nerve: A Little Known But Powerful Part of Your Autonomic Nervous System

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

The transcript can be found under the video.

There's been lots of attention lately on the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system as awareness is slowly growing about autonomic dysfunction, POTS, and long COVID; more people than ever are focusing on their nervous system and looking at ways of rebalancing it.

We know that soothing the nervous system is associated with lower levels of inflammation, more energy, feeling more relaxed, getting better sleep, and just feeling your best in general. But what exactly is the autonomic nervous system? What are the branches of the autonomic nervous system? And most importantly, how can we use this knowledge to our benefit?

How can we access the power of this knowledge to improve our health?

What is the Autonomic Nervous System?

The autonomic nervous system is part of your nervous system. You can think of it as the automatic part that controls involuntary actions like your digestion, breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, and background processes that we're not aware of most of the time.

The two main branches of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic and the parent sympathetic. The sympathetic is your body's fight or flight state, and the parasympathetic is the body's rest and digest state.

Let's say a car is coming at you at full speed. You quickly get out of the way, and you're probably not even realizing that you would do it so. What is actually happening is the sympathetic nervous system, aka the "fight and flight," is directing the body's rapid involuntary response to this dangerous situation.

A flash of hormones will boost the body's alertness and heart rate. supply more blood to the muscle so you can gather the way. Your breathing will get quicker. You'll get fresh oxygen to the brain and have an infusion of glucose that will shoot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost.

This is wonderful! The body's doing it so you can get out of the dangerous way as quickly as possible—everything is getting optimized for fight or flight mode. As previously stated, this response occurs quickly that you might not even notice it. But once you're in this mode and you've got not in the danger of the car not running over, you now need a way to de-escalate the situation.

That's where the system encourages the body to rest and digest in parasympathetic mode. Your blood pressure, breathing rate, and even your hormone levels return to normal as the body settles into equilibrium. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to maintain this baseline and normal body function.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic, you never want to tilt too much in either direction. You're always trying to remain at baseline. When the two systems become unbalanced, it leads to serious consequences. To prevent this from happening, make sure that your body is operating with the right balance of both systems which would be the ideal state.

What is Dysautonomia?

Dysautonomia, also known as autonomic dysfunction, is a condition in which the autonomic nervous system is not functioning properly.

Much is still unknown; some people say it occurs as a result of trauma to the body or infection. I have a form of dysautonomia called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, also known as POTS. Conditions such as POTS, chronic fatigue syndrome, long COVID, and fibromyalgia are all associated with autonomic dysfunction. Even conditions such as major depressive disorder are associated with autonomic dysfunction. It will be interesting to see what other illnesses will be linked to this as research continues in this field. Common symptoms of autonomic dysfunction, dizziness, palpitations, fatigue, nausea, weakness, chest pain, body temperature, regulation, and so on are some of the common varying symptoms.

When I was first diagnosed with POTS and found out about this fight or flight and rest and digest state, it helped me make sense of why I always felt like a tiger was chasing me. Now, you might be thinking, "Well, that sounds like anxiety, like what anxiety feels like," but that is not the case. This felt for me like it was in the body than when my anxiety felt much more like it began with me thinking about something. This is also what makes this kind of condition so difficult to diagnose.

There are vague and common symptoms spread out all over the body making it difficult to recognize and treat them. And there are also a lot of different organs that are affected. As I previously stated, I felt like I was constantly in a position of fight or flight, and the problem is that the body is not built to be in this state for long periods of time.

In the example from before, the tiger is chasing you. Your body is not focusing on adjusting or detoxing. We are even boosting the immune function. If you know that you're dying tomorrow on the battlefield because you're going to be captured by this tiger, why would you care? Why would your body care if there's microbial overgrowth in the gut?

In other ways, there is no need to heal because healing does not occur as frequently while you are in a fight or flight state. As a result, all of these beneficial activities are downregulated since the system isn't stressed; it's focusing on only the most important top priority.

When I was first diagnosed with POTS, the only symptoms I had were palpitations and chest pain. I had a lot of other ones. As the years passed, I saw that I was accumulating an increasing number of new symptoms and diagnoses wondering if it is with my gut, a lot more body pain than before, and other new diagnoses.

My body was so much in this fight or flight mode that it was just not prioritizing anything else. As a result, I only continued to deteriorate. So now we understand why fight or flight is so harmful to our health, both in the short term and in the long term.

We all want to be in rest and digest, but that would only happen if you could simply choose to be in this state. That is not how the body works. That's why it's frustrating to hear people say things like "Oh, just relax and cool down," because it's not that simple.

How do we gain more balance in our body? How do we make it so that we're not feeling like fight or flight all the time?

How does the Vagus Nerve Relate to that Autonomic Nervous System?

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system and it was one of the most important nerves in the body.

Vagus literally means "wondering" in Latin. The nerve is named the wondering nerve or the lengthy back it takes from the brain stem to the colon. This nerve carries an extensive range of signals from the digestive system and our organs all the way to the brain and vice versa. So the information from this nerve is bi-directional. Communication goes from the brain down to the organs to the brain.

Most of the traffic in the vagus nerve, 80% travels upstream from our bodies to our brain. So, how does this actually help us? One hint comes from looking at the Vagus nerve itself. There's something called a low vagal tone and that means that the Vagus nerve isn't functioning as well as it should be, and these can actually be measured.

If we have a low vagal tone, there are strengthening exercises you could do for the Vagus-that's one part of it. The second part is what we just talked about 80% of it is signals from the body to the mind which is also why, for example, you can't just pretend you're not stressed by saying, "Oh, I'm not stressed!. It's fine, It's fine, It's fine." That's not because your body is saying something else. It's telling a completely different story, and those signals are traveling from the body to the brain. So now we know that communication is upstream.

What can we do with the situation?

We need to trick the body into being calm. As a result, more slow rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing, cold showers, meditations, time in nature, and gentle exercise are recommended. These help with the low vagal tone and messages that our body will be sent to our brain, so they're extremely powerful.

Assess How You Want To Live Your Life

It's important to take a step back and evaluate commitments, habits, and routines. What are the things that make you happy? What are the things that drain you emotionally or physically? Maybe you have a toxic relationship in your life, or you're the kind of person that's a perfectionist or an overachiever going 120 miles an hour.

That is something I prefer to do, and it has made a huge impact on how I handle life and go about things. Some people might find that helpful to make new commitments or change their routines to include more of these actions. Otherwise, these actions just pile them on, into an already busy calendar, and into all the expectations we have of ourselves.

It won't make a difference. It'll just be extra tasks to fill up the calendar. It will increase your stress levels. Many of the people I know include a lot of these actions in their day to day routine, but there's just also so much stress in their day-to-day life, but they also have a lot of stress in their lives, which is where taking a step back and really simplifying and stripping things down to the basics is what helps.

We need to go back to resting our bodies more and reassuring so that our minds can also start to feel calm and that the vagus nerve itself is strengthened.

How will you be strengthening your vagus nerve? What will you be prioritizing? I'd love to hear your biggest takeaways down in the comments below.


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