The secret to staying young
It’s about time I talked about the vagus nerve.
Pinched Nerves and Fascia
If you want to stay young in body and mind, there are several things you must regularly include in your lifestyle. One of these is to make sure that no segments of your spine are compressing nerves at the junctions where they exit to your organs, muscles and tissues—“pinched” nerves. Along with this, you have to make sure that your vagus nerveis also free from any compression due to muscular tension, jaw and neck misalignment. You can achieve this using daily corrective exercises that take only several minutes to do.
In general, nerves pass through muscles, alongside bone, through joint spaces, in the seams between muscles, and in and around organs. Nerves are wrapped in a protective coat of connective fascia tissue, to provide a fluid, moveable support and allow the nerves to function normally when the body moves. When this fascial protective coat becomes damaged, nerves are unable to send their signals—and this causes disease and inappropriate aging.
When nerves are pinched, the fascia tightens-up and inhibits the nerve from moving in that local area. The fascia can become “stuck” to adjoining muscles, bones, joints and skin, and with movement, the nerves will then be tugged backward and forwards, leading to nerve dysfunction—they become incompetent at sending signals.
You may be aware of nerves being pinched when you find your hands or feet tingling, or going numb. This mostly occurs when a peripheral nerve’s fascia is compressed between locked-up muscles and tendons. It also occurs when a nerve is being compressed between a bone and a tight muscle or tendon—particularly around joints.
Chiropractors and osteopaths use manipulation techniques to realign bone joints to free up compression on the fascia and allow the nerves to work normally. By doing this, a host of symptoms are eliminated. Massage therapists release locked-up muscles to achieve a similar effect.
Physical nerve compression in the spine, jaw and neck contribute directly and indirectly to hundreds of ill-health symptoms. Some consequences are major such as: increasing immune inflammatory responses; making autoimmune disease symptoms worse; and accelerating tumour growth.
Nerve compression in the spine, jaw and neck can also contribute to organ dysfunction such as: abdominal bloating and pain; nausea and vomiting; difficulty breathing and running out of breath; unstable heart pulsing and abnormal blood pressure.
This nerve compression also contributes to mental health symptoms such as: dulling the memory and causing the brain to become fuggy; increasing irritability, emotional flatness, and loss of self esteem.
And this nerve compression can simply cause irritating symptoms such as: stress and tension headaches; ear pains; general tiredness and lethargy; skin itches; aches and pains of all sorts; degeneration of teeth, and others.
Your Body’s Public Service
When we play movement sports such as running, swimming, dancing, cycling, etc we are mostly involving the peripheral nervous system linking to skeletal muscles to facilitate our movement. Exercise can indirectly benefit those peripheral nerves through the spine, that also link to the organs and modulate your immune system. Yes your immune system. The nervous system communicates with the immune system through hormones, cytokines and other chemicals.
Our bodies have a “public service” that maintains our health and helps us age correctly. It is composed of two parts—our nervous system and our immune system. These two systems are in constant communication and support. Pinched nerves interrupt this communication, and therefore reduce your youthfulness.
Your nervous system
The human nervous system is composed of a central nervous system, which is the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves extending to the organs and tissues of the body. The part of the peripheral nervous system that influences the function of internal organs and immune system, is called the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two parts. One of these excites the organs (and immune system) into “flight-fight” activity, pouring the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, into your body—called the sympathetic nervous system, linked through the spine. The other one relaxes the organs (and immune system) into “rest-digest” activity, by releasing acetylcholine—called the parasympathetic nervous system.
The vagus nerve is the major part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It wanders from the central brain, down the front of the neck to the organs. It has two-way signalling of information from the brain to the organs and immune system, and back again, like a seesaw, to help modulate organ and immune function.
In summary, your spinal sympathetic nervous system helps kick the immune system and organs into activity, and your parasympathetic, mostly vagus nerves, tempers them.
If you suffer from anxiety, panic symptoms (or attacks), depression, a functional medical problem such as chronic (back) pain, or functional gastrointestinal problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and general chronic illnesses, then you should care about your vagus nerve.
Vagus Nerve Illnesses
The vagus nerve conveys an incredible amount of information related to the state and function of the visceral organs—your digestive tract, your heart, your lungs, information about the nutrients you eat—anything required for homeostasis (physiological balance). It is the lifeline between the vital function control centres of your brain and your visceral organs, passing messages constantly between your hypothalamus and organs, to control things like pulse and respiration, the lubrication of sinuses, and the limiting of immune responses.
The Vagus nerve:
• Dulls-down pain and switches-off inflammation.
• Stimulates the creation of new brain cells (neurogenesis).
• Turns off the stress, hyper-arousal, and fight/flight stimulus via the relaxation response.
• Sharpens your memories.
• Fights inflammatory diseases and reduce chronic pain.
• Increases your breathing efficiency.
• Improves your digestion.
• Helps settle high blood pressure.
• Improves general heart health.
• Blocks the hormone cortisol and other oxidizing agents that age and deteriorate your brain.
• Blocks systemic (body-wide) inflammation—a major factor behind aging and poor health.
• Helps overcome depression and anxiety.
• Helps improve deep and longer sleep.
• Raises levels of human growth hormone.
• Helps overcome insulin resistance.
• Reduces the intensity of allergic responses.
• Reduces stress and tension headaches.
• Allows you to feel relaxed and in flow.
• Affects your overall ability to live longer, healthier, with more sustained energy.
Vagus-stimulating Electrical Devices
Doctors are using electrical devices to stimulate the vagus nerve with the intention of controlling chronic inflammation and other health disorders. The devices are successful in some situations. They can either be implanted in the chest, or people can use hand-held non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation devices to self-administer discrete doses when they need to.
Yoga Exercises to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
You don’t need to use an electrical device to stimulate your vagus nerve, because there are simple yoga exercises that change the nervous tension in your throat, chest and belly, to do this for you.
• Deep/slow breathing (using ujjai for those of you doing yoga).
• Exhaling longer than inhaling.
• Holding the breath.
• Singing and humming, chanting, sighing, singing, or purring (variations on pranava)
• Cooling the face.
• Loud gargling with water.
An Exercise for You to Try
Over the count of five, breath-in slowly, keeping your shoulders down and expanding your diaphragm. Pause, and then “hum” as you exhale through the nose—doing this slows both your breathing and shakes-up your vagus nerve. You can enhance vagus stimulation by inhaling and thinking: “flow”; and exhaling and thinking “settle”. Concentrate on your throat, chest and tummy.
Do this now for several breaths and see how you feel.
These exercises, however will not work so well if your vagus nerve is compressed, squashed or pinched.
Look at where the vagus nerve travels when it leaves the brain. It passes under and around the large jaw muscles, travels in front of, and below the ears, and under the sternocleidomastoid muscles, then into the chest behind the clavicles. Inappropriate jaw alignment, and regional muscle tension will cause tight, sticking fascia and the vagus nerve can become pinched.
Unfortunately the normal yoga exercises are not be able to directly remove the pinching for most people. Corrective exercises will need to be incorporated into the general yoga exercises, and repeated for some weeks to stabilise the fascia. These can be taught and practiced along with normal yoga techniques.
Spinal Exercises are Necessary to Complement the Vagus Nerve Exercises
Recall, your sympathetic nervous system linked through the spine, kicks your immune system and organs into activity, while your parasympathetic nervous system, through your vagus nerves, relaxes and tempers them. Together they modulate organ and immune activity. Therefore corrective exercises that realign spinal joints and release muscle tension along the spine are also part of the vagus nerve exercises package.
Monitoring Your Vagus Nerve Activity
You will know when the vagus nerve has been stimulated and your body is in the parasympathetic mode, when your mouth produces adequate amounts of saliva. The reverse also occurs—you can help stimulate your vagus nerve by stimulating salivation. Imagine a tasty food you love to eat, and at the same time fill your mouth with a small amount of warm water and rest your tongue in this. See if this relaxes you.
You will know if your vagus nerve is working well, by the way your heart rate changes as you breathe. Take your pulse. Your heart-rate should speed up a little, when your breathe-in and hold your breath for several seconds, and it should slow down a little, when you breathe-out and hold your breath for a few seconds. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the better will be the functioning of your vagus nerve. It will then have good “tone”. If it is the same on the in-breath and out-breath, then there could very well be nervous pinching either in your spine or vagus nerve.
Having good vagus nerve tone means that your body can relax faster after stress; have better regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure; have improved digestion; have less chance of tension headaches, better moods, less anxiety and more stress resilience—and you will have a higher chance to feel energised and healthy.
On the other hand, poor vagal tone is associated with cardiovascular conditions and strokes, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, and much higher rates of inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus). Poor vagus nerve tone is associated with inflammation-linked, ‘noncommunicable chronic diseases’—which are the most common group of health problems across the world, currently causing nearly seventy-five percent of all deaths.
If you wish to learn these exercises, enrol in one of my yoga classes, or one of those classes conducted by the Samyama yoga teachers (0424228578)—or you can book an appointment time with me in the clinic to show you these exercises (phone 0437 276 447).
Google: Vagus Nerve for more information.