Last Post of Dear Candy: The Vagus Nerve
Aug 26, 2023
7 min read
Updated: Aug 29, 2023
Next month will be the 3 year anniversary since the Rewiring Your Wellness online conference and I have decided it is time to move my blog to my own website. I have greatly enjoyed writing about topics for RYW and I will continue to answer retraining questions and offer tips. If you wish to continue receiving my posts you can subscribe to my new blog here.
Thank you to all who participated in the last live Q&A! Join me on Zoom Sept 9 at 9am Pacific/12pm Eastern for a live Q&A and have your questions answered in real time!
We will do an hour of Q&A followed by 20 minutes of breath work & meditation.
Register here: http://tiny.cc/LiveQandA
If you have already registered for previous Q&A's there is no need to register again. A reminder email with the zoom link will be sent out the day before.
Hope to see you there!
Previous live Q&A recordings can be viewed here.
The vagus nerve is a hot topic these days. A lot of people are engaging in practices to stimulate the vagus nerve to support their retraining efforts. There are a few key things to keep in mind with the vagus nerve, which I will be sharing here, along with some of the more useful ways to stimulate it.
We know that the vagus nerve (otherwise known as cranial nerve #10) is the largest wandering nerve we have in our body. It isn't just one nerve, though. We actually have a pair of them, one on either side of us. They originate in the brain and act like a transport superhighway, sending signals bi-directionally (from the brain to the various parts of the body and vice versa). Within each of the nerves are tens of thousands of nerve fibers. Each fiber signals something specific, in other words they each have their own "job".
The vagal nerves innervate several major organs and regions of the body and they influence our functioning in many ways, including dampening the inflammatory response, influencing digestion, heart rate, immune & respiratory function, the endocrine system, and so on (all are automatic or involuntary functions that we have no conscious control over). They are the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system, making up about 90% of the parasympathetic nerve fibers. Needless to say, the signals coming through the vagus nerve have a pretty significant impact on us and our overall wellbeing!
What's important to keep in mind is that the vagus nerve doesn't generate the signals on its own. The signalling comes from the brain. In other words, it is our cortical function that drives vagal tone. If there are problems with the way our brain in operating (like when we have limbic system dysfunction), it is going to impact the signalling of the vagus nerve. When this is the case, no amount of stimulating the vagus nerve on its own is going to create lasting changes in how the vagus nerve is signalling because we are not addressing the problem at the root cause (which is the brain).
That being said, there can be advantages to stimulating the vagal nerves while also engaging in brain retraining. Let me be clear here that this is not necessary in order to rewire the brain, and a lot of people have recovered without engaging in vagal nerve stimulation. For those who are seeing slow progress, experiencing a lot of anxiety/fight or flight, or are not getting the results they are looking for, this can be a potentially useful addition that supports the brain and body in working together toward wellbeing.
According to Dr. Peter Kan (Chiropractic Neurologist), the most common causes of vagus nerve dysfunction include: stress, inflammation, decreased brain function, traumatic brain injury, neuro-degeneration, and enteric nervous system degeneration (in the gut).
Optimizing vagus nerve functioning can assist with digestion, blood sugar regulation, leaky gut, and decreasing inflammation. It indirectly helps the immune system and detoxification mechanisms. It promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production in the hippocampus (the part of the brain largely responsible for memories). It also helps with working memory & executive functions in the brain. It decreases sympathetic response (fight/flight/freeze) and increases parasympathetic (rest & digest), which then decreases stress hormones, improving our endocrine system and metabolic function. Optimizing the vagus nerve also suppresses antibody release, making us less reactive to things.
According to Dr. Kan, there are various ways to activate the vagus nerve, some more effective than others. Humming, gargling, stimulating the gag reflex, voluntary cold exposure, breath work, and meditation are common vagus nerve promoting activities. With humming, it is best to do a deep loud diaphragmatic hum. Chanting om or singing loudly can work too. The goal is to stimulate the vocal cords and have long exhales. With gargling, you want to hold the water in your mouth, do a deep inhale and then gargle as hard as you can for as long as you can until you are out of breath. You can do this for 10 reps 2-3 times a day (or just fill a tall glass of water and do it until the glass is empty).
For the gag reflex, use a toothbrush or tongue depressor to push down on the very back of the tongue to induce gagging. You want to gag to the point that you have tears in your eyes. Do this 5-10 times, 2-3 times per day. Both the gargling and gagging can be added on to your teeth brushing routine as a simple way of incorporating these daily, if you choose to do them. Cold exposure can be achieved through a cold shower for a couple of minutes, or by immersing your face fully in ice water. If you submerge your face, take a deep breath and exhale fully first, and then hold your breath and stick your face in the water for as long as you can until you need to breathe again.
In terms of breath work, breathing tools can be one of the fastest ways to promote parasympathetic activity (and good vagal tone). Three to five minutes of the ujjayi breath or alternate nostril breathing is great (you can find how-to videos & a 5 minute breather of each of these on my website). Another option is to take a fast, deep inhale, followed by a second fast & deep inhale (to the point where you cannot take in any more air), and then extend or prolong the exhale, breathing out fully, for 10 reps. Other vagus nerve promoting activities include: having an attitude of gratitude, listening to uplifting or calm music, connecting with positive people or nature, doing the SKY breath meditation, belly laughing, complimenting and being complimented by others, prayer & intention.
There's lots of great things we can do and most, if not all of you, are likely doing at least some of these already in your everyday life. Something to consider here is that these vagus nerve promoting activities tend to be slow acting, taking a while to create change, especially when done on their own (not in combination with other things). For some, these activities alone are not strong enough to change vagus nerve functioning.
There is also the option of transcutaneous (used on the skin) vagus nerve stimulating devices, which provide stronger stimulation to the vagus nerve than the previously described activities. Tens units with ear electrodes or various handheld wireless devices are the most common options. The easiest and more effective option, according to Dr. Kan, is the VeRelief mini vagus nerve stimulator. It is a small, portable, rechargeable, handheld device used on the auricular nerve (just under your earlobe). Unlike the Tens unit, you are not hooked up to wires and gel is not required to use the device. It also has an easy way to adjust the level of stimulation, so for those who are sensitive they can start on the lowest setting and work their way up. The recommendation with this device is to use it 5 minutes per side, twice per day. Once your system is acclimated to using it, there is also an advanced protocol that combines the use of the device with a specific breathing technique to get an even bigger impact. If you are interested, you can order the device from the manufacturer itself (through the link above) or from Dr. Kan here. Dr. Kan includes access to a video containing a brief overview of the vagus nerve and basic training in using the device. I personally have not yet tried the device but I plan to in the near future, and will report back in a later blog (on my website) in a few months. If any of you try it out, I would be very interested in hearing your feedback. Please email me. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The most common reported benefits using the device include feeling calmer, having more brain clarity and improving digestion. Sometimes those changes start right away, but it is recommended to use the device regularly for a period of time (minimum 3-4 weeks) to see more lasting effects. Again, this device does not replace brain retraining. We want to still direct brain function because the vagus nerve takes its cues from the brain, but it does have the potential to effectively aid our rewiring process.
Whether you incorporate some of the simple techniques to promote vagus nerve function or take a more intensive approach with a stimulation device, understanding the vagus nerve and actively improving its signalling can be a useful addition to our recovery toolkit.
Best Wishes and happy retraining!
Candy Widdifield is Certified Master Coach, Registered Reiki Master Teacher and former Registered Clinical Counsellor, living in Calgary Alberta, Canada. She has a background in brain retraining & nervous system regulation, trauma, grief & loss, mindfulness, somatic therapy, & positive psychology. She taught the DNRS in-person program for 5 years, has over a decade of experience coaching brain re-trainers & provides mentorship to other coaches. Candy works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com