Viva Las Vagus!
No I’m not talking about jetting off to the 24hr party town for a taste of hedonism!
Let me introduce you to the Vagus nerve.
If I had to compare the human body to a computer – which I hate doing – I’d say the Vagus nerve is like the DOS or Disc Operating System of the body (yep I know I’m showing my age now!). The 10th cranial nerve, the Vagus runs from the hypothalamus area of the brain, through your chest, diaphragm and around your digestive system and intestines. En route it wraps around your heart, solar plexus and core areas – in Eastern medicine considered to be the seat of intuition and compassion.
This nerve controls countless vital processes in your body – healing, repair, growth, sleep, your relationship with anxiety, fear and safety. It activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and thereby regulates the heartbeat, breathing, stomach and digestive tract. One of the key roles that the Vagus nerve plays is that it acts like the ‘reset’ button after your internal alarm system has been set off. It is the counterbalance to your stress response or the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The nerve then communicates with the rest of your body to tell you that the threat is gone and that all of your bodily functions can now return to normal, healing mode.
How wonderful that we have this in-built mechanism for self-regulating, adjusting, keeping us well.
The problem is that with stressful, fast living it can switch off. Last week – a busy week in the lead up to the summer hols – I have talked to stressed lawyers, people who are exhausted from sitting and thinking too much, people who rush around all the time with an eye on the clock and then yesterday, a group of 100 children many of whom have problems sleeping because of technology (a whole other story).
A variety of human beings and many of whom have habituated to living in stress mode without even realising that they’ve been doing so. Even I too have accumulated a level of stress in my body from weeks of travelling, talking, giving energy. I love what I do but talking a lot affects my physiology. I do most things fast – I walk fast, talk fast, think fast. Lately I’ve been consciously trying to slow down, mainly because I’ve noticed the impact of this speed on my health and ability to sustain energy. Ironically, while I talk to my clients/patients about staying healthy and stress-free, I end up talking and thinking so fast. I have such limited time and so much to give. A true labour of love! But at the end of a seminar, auditorium presentation or webinar, I can end up feeling spaced out and almost dizzy from the effects of sub-optimal breathing.
I should know better. I’ve studied this for years but when I get caught up, I forget. The disruption in my breathing switches off my Vagus, my body starts to accumulate adrenaline and cortisol, it stops healing. But I’m working on it. I’m learning how to – I have to if I want to keep doing what I love doing.
I see this with my clients and patients all the time. The signs of sub-optimal breathing – yawning, sighing, tightness in neck and shoulders (as chest over engages in breathing), fatigue, dizzy spells, tingling and tightness in muscles, tightness in the jaw and facial muscles, migraines and even more serious illnesses. And the old favourites – speedy thinking and behaviour. What causes this? Poor posture, sitting too much, excess trunkal thickening (you know what I mean!), poor nutrition, fear, anxiety, anticipation, living in the head, talking and living too fast, doing too much.
Poor breathing leads to illness. It switches off the Vagus and disconnects the body from its natural healing abilities. It keeps our GPs busy and probably stressed too.
Optimal breathing does the opposite.
So how do you redress the balance?
Regularly press the ‘reset’ button.
You can do it right now. Stop, put your feet on the ground, breathe. Breathe deeply and breathe ‘fat’ from your belly. Let go on the exhalation – this is the phase of the breath cycle that really switches on the Vagus.
Take this ‘pill’ five times a day for 21 days. This means check your breathing and drop it into your bellyfirst thing in the morning, last thing at night, then find a few times during the day when you do it. It doesn’t need to be fancy – maybe one day you’ll find yourself at a yoga or pilates class learning the advanced breathing techniques of a free-diver. But for now, just consciously check your breathing 5 times a day for the next 21 days and then notice the difference.
Katie, a lovely 17yr old student sitting her exams and suffering from horrible panic attacks and night terrors has been diligently taking her prescription of breathing pills for the last 3 weeks. Her latest email to me read:
‘I can’t believe how much difference the breathing has made. I feel so different and calm. I’ve managed to get through my exams without any panic and my sleep has improved.’
The Vagus nerve is our route to sanity in this crazy, hectic world we live in.
Viva Las Vagus!
Yours in amazing health and energy.