VAGAL NERVE DYSFUNCTION
The intention of today’s blog entry is not to go into too much depth but to leave you with an awareness. I will not be discussing the anatomy of the complex vagal nerve at this time.
The Vagal Nerve (right and left branches) supplies all the organs in the thorax and abdomen, the vocal cords, the pharyngeal muscles, the thymus and the ears. Proper function determines health and dysfunction is highly associated with disease.
Many people are not aware of the fact that it supports balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System branches. We should be activating our Vagal nerve about 80 percent of the time and remain in a relatively parasympathetic state.
The Vagal Nerve (longest nerve running from the brain) originates in the brain stem and leaves the skull on the right and left side of the neck. It runs through the thoracic and abdominal areas, sending branches to all the organs on its way and forms a final plexus with the Parasympathetic nerves running from the lower end of the spinal column.
Its functions can be summarized as;
• Allows a two-way communication between the gut and he brain and supports us to create memories.
• Sensory function of the skin in the outer ear canal and earlobe
• Make the swallowing of food possible
• Manage vocal cord function
• Manage airways and control breathing
• Control heart rate and maintain optimal blood pressure
• Control the many functions of the liver
• Activate gallbladder emptying
• Manage hunger, satiety, blood sugar and insulin levels, gut motor function and the release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
• Overview and manage immune system function and inflammation in the gut.
• Relay information from the microbiome in the gut to the brain.
The dysfunction of the Vagal nerve can result from;
• Damage to the brain (brain trauma)
• Damage to the Vagal nerve itself or its branches at any level
• Chronic activation of the spinal sympathetic nervous system
This can result in disrupted communication between the brain and the organs supplied by the Vagal nerve and cause;
- Mental Issues; excessive worrying, difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions
- Behaviour changes; frequent accidents or injuries, addiction problems, autism, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome
- Emotional Issues; depression, anxiety, abnormal fear and lack of energy are all directly linked to low vagal tone
- Interpersonal relationship disturbances; unreasonable distrust, difficulty reaching agreements, loss of interest in sex
- Chronic physical tensions
- An increased sympathetic response and therefore an increased stress response leading to an inability to handle stressful situations
- Different states of immobilization
- Conditions that affect multiple organs
- Cardiovascular problems e.g. dysfunctional heart rate
- Dysfunctional airways and breathing
- Monotone voice
- Frequent infections, allergies and chronic inflammation with immune activation that can result in a range of autoimmune conditions
- Visceral organ dysfunction and disruption of the entire digestive sequence and satiety reflex
- Lead to an overgrowth of non commensal intestinal organisms
- Dysfunctional liver function
- Disruption of the metabolic processes
- Excessive menstrual pain
- Skin problems
- The Vagal nerves respond to eating and late-night eating can lead to disrupted sleep and cicardian rhythm
The good news is that, most of the time, we can restore the Vagal function (unless the nerve is damaged itself).
We can measure the Vagal nerve function by;
- Measuring the heart rate variability, which is a golden standard for measuing Vagal nerve function
- Measuring bowel transit time using sesame seeds since they cannot be broken unless they are broken before entering the intestine.
- Testing for paradoxial breathing. This means that the chest will move before the belly when breathing. The diaphragm is then more likely not used for correct, deep, full breaths. The breathing can be shallow and only fully expand the top part of the lungs.
*you can find explanations in the reading material mentioned at the end of the blog.
Exercises to activate the Vagal nerve:
- Breathing exercises (deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing)
- Humming or chanting
- Activating the gag reflex
- Yoga & Pilatus
- Mindfulness practice
- Coughing or tensing of the stomach muscles
Lifestyle changes that will support the vagal nerve function;
- Getting restorative sleep – consider good sleep hygiene
- Sleeping on your right side
- Periodic cold exposure – cold exposure such as cold showers or face dunking stimulates the Vagal nerve
- Laughter and social connectedness
- Listening to music – to sing along will add to the experience
- Sunlight exposure
Nutrients that will support the health of the Vagal nerve;
- Smart healthy food choices always come first
- Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation
- 5-HTP (precursor to serotonin) supplementation
Passive methods to activate the Vagal nerve;
- Auricular acupuncture or acupressure
- Massage Therapy
- Visceral manipulation
- Electrical stimulation of the Vagal nerve
- Craniosacral therapy
- Activate Your Vagus Nerve: Unleash Your Body’s Natural Ability to Heal (Dr Navaz Habib)
- Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism (Stanley Rosenberg)
- BrainSAVE: The 6-Week Plan to Heal Your Brain from Concussions, Brain Injuries & Trauma without Drugs or Surgery (Dr Titus Chiu)