The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Relieving Stress

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. It connects our brains to our lungs, digestive tracts, heart, and the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember that our sympathetic nervous system alerts us to new things and danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for helping us relax and calm down. The stronger the activity of our vagus nerve, the more readily we can assume a feed and enjoy state rather than being stressed out. The strength of this vagal activity is known as vagal tone.

The vagus nerve’s interplay with the heart rate as we breathe can be used to infer vagal tone. Inhaling temporarily suppresses vagal nerve activity. This increases heart rate that helps oxygenated blood circulate. When we breathe out, our heart rate slows. The larger the difference between our heart rate when breathing in compared with breathing out, the higher our vagal tone.

An article in the New Scientist1 explains why we should care about vagal tone, and what we can do to improve it. There are physical health benefits. The vagus nerve plays a role in stimulating insulin production. Consequently, people with low tone are not as good as those with high tone at regulating their blood glucose levels. They also have difficulty suppressing inflammation. These factors are association with heart failure, stroke, and diabetes, so it is not surprising that thee is a strong link between low vagal tone and dying from cardiovascular disease. There are also mental benefits. People with higher vagal tone tend to be intellectually sparkier. They are better able to focus their attention and have better working memories.

Naturally, the question is how can vagal tone be improved. Loving kindness meditation was highlighted in the New Scientist article. Buddhist monks will spend hours in this type of meditation. Given the state of the world, one might conclude that their efforts are ineffective. However, regardless of the state of the world, these monks should be in superb physical and mental health. Fortunately, it does not appear that lengthy meditations are needed . Here is the protocol described in the article:

Find a position that makes you feel relaxed, yet alert. With your eyes closed, try to envisage your heartbeat, and then consciously concentrate on your breathing. Now visualize someone—it can be yourself, a loved one, or someone you barely know—and think of their good qualities. Once you are feeling positive towards them, repeat these traditional phrases of loving kindness meditation: May X feel safe: May X feel happy: May X feel healthy: May X live at ease. After a few minutes, let go of X’s image and start thinking nice thoughts about someone else.

The article mentions people mentally wishing happy thoughts to strangers they are passing. Research into this area is fairly new. It does not seem that loving kindness meditation, although certainly worthwhile, is necessary to increase vagal tone. However, it is quite likely that positive thoughts and some type of meditation are important. Some unpublished research has shown that just reflecting on positive social experiences during the day boosts vagal tone. Physical exercise is also likely to be beneficial

1Young, E. (2013.Wishful Thinking, July, 46-49.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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