Hacking the nervous system
Breathing and meditation, effects on the vagus nerve and inflammation
A question from a client about why we do breathing exercises prompted me to do a little research. Here are the results
About the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem and travels down the neck into the chest and abdomen. It links to most of the major organs and is a two way messenger passing signals between the organs and the brain.
The vagus nerve is active when you breathe out, and switched off when you breath in. When you breathe in your heart beats faster to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around the body. Breathe out and the heart rate slows. The bigger the difference in heart rate the higher the “vagal tone”. Vagal tone is partly defined by genetics, but can also be affected by lifestyle.
High vagal tone makes the body better at regulating blood glucose levels reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone is associated with chronic inflammatory diseases Chronic inflammation can lead to cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and neurological diseases.
Healthy vagus nerve operation is also key to weight management.
Effect of electrical stimulation on the vagus nerve
Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey conducted experiments using an electrical implant that stimulated the vagus nerve. More than half his patients with chronic inflammation reported significant improvement. Measure of inflammation in the blood went down in three quarters of the patients. Vagal nerve stimulation seems to restore the body’s natural balance without affecting the healthy immune system function.
Breathing, meditation and the vagus nerve
Doing abdominal breathing, you can activate the vagus nerve and trigger a relaxation response. The relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response, is necessary for your body to heal, repair, and renew. Stimulating your vagus nerve sends the neurotransmitter acetylcholine throughout your body, not only relaxing you but also turning down the fires of inflammation.. The vagus nerve is also involved in repair of brain tissue, and to actual regeneration throughout the body. Activating the vagus nerve can stimulate stem cells to produce new cells and repair and rebuild your own organs.
There are many ways to activate the vagus nerve and turn on the relaxation response. When you take a deep breath and relax and expand your diaphragm, your vagus system is stimulated, you instantly turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced, and your brain and body heals.
You can learn to use breathing exercises to shift your focus away from pain. If you focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you're less focused on the pain. The moment we anticipate pain, most of us tend to stop breathing and hold our breath. Breath holding activates the fight/flight/freeze response; it tends to increase the sensation of pain, stiffness, anxiety, or fear. Whenever you anticipate pain, exhale instead of holding the breath.
Other experiments have shown that those who meditate showed a significant rise in vagal tone, and increases in positive emotions.
So - keep breathing deep. And remember the human is one entity - mind and body.