The vagus nerve has been shown to be highly effective in treating depression. Its activation correlates with greater overall health and could be a helpful addition to your self-care toolkit.
The vagus nerve is the main part of the parasympathetic nervous system. To understand the function and placement of the vagus nerve, it is crucial to understand the nervous system’s connection to mental health.
The nervous system: A brief introduction
The nervous system is an information pathway and supports the body’s communication process by sending sensory information from receptors to and from the brain.
The central nervous system controls and coordinates the nervous system. It is composed of the brain and spinal cord.
The peripheral nervous system consists of the remaining nerves that fan out throughout the body. It is divided into the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.
The somatic nervous system is responsible for all voluntary functions and connecting the central nervous system to sensory receptors.
The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions such as heart rate, digestion, temperature and breathing. It is made up of parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions.
Fight and flight vs. rest and digest functions
The sympathetic division of the nervous system activates the body’s freeze, fight or flight system in response to stress, mobilizing the body’s emergency resources.
When an emergency response begins, the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are released. This prompts bodily changes such as heart rate increase, pupil dilation and lung capacity increase. Every organ in the body is modified to meet danger, preparing the body to respond to emergencies, strong emotions and strenuous activities. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system is essentially the body’s stress response.
The parasympathetic division is responsible for ‘resting and digesting,’ and is activated when there is no perceived threat so the body can conserve bodily resources. Activating the parasympathetic division brings the body down from a heightened state of stress to a more normal state. It antagonizes the sympathetic division. The parasympathetic division is active during relaxation.
The vagus nerve
Vaga in Latin means “to wander.” The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve within the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. It wanders from the brain, through the body to the abdomen.
When the vagus nerve is not functioning optimally, it can lead to depression, anxiety, obesity, cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, digestive disorders, kidney malfunction, infertility, chronic inflammation, diabetes and even Parkinson’s disease.
The malfunctioning of the vagus nerve can be caused by stress, improper diet, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise.
The vagus nerve is a major contributor to depression and anxiety treatment. Activation of the nervous system results in increased happiness, relaxation, better sleep and improved immunity function.
The vagus nerve is such a crucial component of depression treatment that, in severe cases, it is stimulated by medical professionals using an electrode. Studies have shown that vagus nerve activation treats depression, even in treatment-resistant cases.
How to activate the vagus nerve naturally
You can activate your vagus nerve without an electrode. The most effective way to activate the vagus nerve naturally is with breathing techniques. Additionally, it can be stimulated by washing your face with cold water, humming or chanting, exercising, ingesting probiotics, laughing and even by receiving physical affection.
Now that you know these techniques, try them out and see how your health and mood improve with daily practice. Remember, you have control over activating your vagus nerve: Your health is in your hands.
File photo by Travis Sztainert.