The Nerve That Saved My Life
Imagine sitting at a restaurant having a great time with friends, ready to indulge in your first bite, when you realize you can’t breathe. The first swallow has you gasping for air. You hit your chest, hoping it may actually help this time. As you look up at your friends, you can see their concerned and confused faces. Before the walls come closing down on you, you run to the restroom in complete panic! You begin to think to yourself, “What is going on with me?”
Then suddenly, you hiccup and the horror stops.
That was me four years ago. I was afraid to eat or swallow even vitamins. If I needed to swallow a pill, you better believe that I chewed it thoroughly. Not the best taste, I can assure you.
The feeling is almost indescribable. When my ‘attacks’ happened, it felt as if I was choking, like my insides were spasming and the room was closing in on me. Going out to eat with friends was no longer fun. I became anxious and feared that I would go through another attack.
Slowly, I started changing what and how I ate, chewing 100 times per bite, avoiding meat or anything I thought could potentially lead to an attack. Soup was my friend.
It wasn’t until my first visceral manipulation course that I realized the source of my problem was stress, stress that caused an imbalance of my ANS, autonomic nervous system. I was on sympathetic overload. The ‘fight or flight’ part of the nervous system that causes pupils to dilate, heart and respiratory rates to increase, sweating, increase in muscle tone and tightness, constriction of blood vessels, etc. That same overload also diverts blood from your intestinal tract to your heart, lungs, and big muscle groups because your mind and body think you are under distress, as if you were running away from a bear!
Now, I wasn’t running from a bear, obviously, but the fact remains I was under distress psychologically, the frustration stemming from my childhood.
Mind, Body Connection
How can psychological stress wreak so much havoc on the physical body? The answer is simple.
Your body is like a trash can always receiving garbage from environmental, physical, and emotional stressors. In order for your mind to not frazzle, it will discharge this stress into your body instead. When we are younger, our bodies have the capability to bounce back from stress and trauma a lot more quickly. The older we get, the more the body has gone through; if not taken care of, the body fails, meaning pain, constipation, depression, digestive disorders, autoimmune disorders, allergies, etc.
Body Regulator: The Autonomic Nervous System
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is your ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism. It is the switch that turns on when you need to run away from danger. It slows down your gut motility, increases your heart and respiratory rates, causes you to sweat, gives you goosebumps, and makes sure you don’t have the urge to pee.
These are all important reactions when you are actually fighting for your life, but what happens when this is what you go through on a daily basis? When you don’t come down from that high-stress rollercoaster ride?
Your mind and body suffer from sympathetic overload, releasing neurotransmitters and inflammatory protein markers that start to attack your body even when it is not under distress. These biomechanical changes affect your immune system, clarity, cognitive function, and mood just to name a few. You might find it hard to lose or gain weight, have trouble sleeping, feel constant tension in all of your muscles, get sick more often, lose hair, gain allergies and rashes that you’ve never had before.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ regulator. When stimulated, it increases motility of the gut, relaxes your heart rate and breathing, stimulates the production of serotonin (the ‘happy’ chemical of the brain that is produced mostly in your gut), relaxes your muscles, and stimulates the urge to pee and poop, at an appropriate time of course!
When your body is at rest, it has the ability to repair itself as well as the ability to stimulate normal bodily functions for you to withstand the demands of life. When your body is unable to achieve this stimulation, your body begins to work on overdrive, turning your body’s most secret weapon against you.
Vagus, The “Wandering Nerve”
I admit it; I’m a bit of an anatomy geek. I love learning about the body only to discover how much I still don’t know!
The word vagus is Latin for ‘wandering’. It’s a wandering nerve because along its path it gives off branches to the throat, trachea (breathing tube), lungs, heart, stomach, liver, pancreas (organ that helps regulate blood sugar), kidneys, intestines, and colon.
The picture above shows both the ‘fight or flight’ (red) and the ‘rest and digest’ (blue) nerve pathways. The vagus nerve is labeled “X” (blue) for cranial nerve number ten, showing you the vast connections it has to your vital organs.
The function of the vagus nerve is complex, but I like simple, so that’s how I’m going to explain it! Its main job is to communicate between the brain and all the organs that it touches along its path.
Have you heard the phrase ‘trust your gut’? Well, it’s true! Gut instincts literally come from your vagus nerve sending emotional signals from your gut to the brain. The vagus nerve is your inner referee that breaks up the fight or flight response under times of stress, if it’s summoned properly!
Effects Of Stress On The Vagus Nerve
How come stress caused me to fear death whenever I swallowed? Well, stress had a negative effect on my vagus nerve and I’m going to explain how.
Stress lowers the normal tone of the nerve itself, causing it to misfire. It stopped acting as referee and caused my sympathetic nervous system to win. Instead of relaxing and having my digestive organs working properly while eating, my body was under so much stress that my esophagus (tube where food enters down to the stomach) began spasming as I swallowed. Although it didn’t seem like I was stressed when I was out having a good time with friends, my body wasn’t catching up.
In a recent 2015 study, researchers found that stimulating the vagus nerve in persons suffering from neck spasms significantly reduced muscle tone, decreased pain, and improved sleep, mood, and autonomic nervous system regulation.¹
It is also possible to re-train balance of the vagus nerve. In 2010, researchers compared the nervous system activity (including heart rate) of 20 children with abdominal pain and 10 without abdominal pain. The 20 children with abdominal pain received heart rate biofeedback training aimed to normalize their nervous system regulation, while the other group was a control.
Results showed that those who participated in the biofeedback training were able to significantly reduce their symptoms by changing their vagal tone and improving autonomic balance between the rest-and-digest and fight-or-flight nervous systems.²
It’s worth pointing out that during this study, those children who had pain also showed signs of high autonomic dysregulation, meaning that their pain threshold had a direct relationship to the signals being sent between the vagus nerve, brain, and organs.
How To Stimulate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System?
The Vagus Nerve Changed My Life
How did I come to the realization that it was the vagus nerve causing all of my grief? The journey began at my first visceral manipulation course. I volunteered to be a demo for the stomach mobilization. As I was sitting on the table, I began thinking to myself, “Well, this is silly, how does one mobilize the stomach?”
The instructor gently gathered the borders of the stomach into his hands and began to assess its motion restrictions. It truly felt like nothing.
“Now follow the stomach into the direction of ease”, he said. Immediately, I felt my cheeks get very hot, my breathing heavier, and my body lighter. All I could hear were the students whispering, “Look at her face, she’s turning red.” I remember looking up at the ceiling tiles thinking to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Am I seriously going to cry right here in front of 50 people?!”
And just like that, I became an emotional waterworks show.
Since that day, I was sold! I felt a burden lifted off my shoulders instantly. I felt taller, my chest lighter. I was told I had an emotional release. The stress that accumulated over my lifetime was manifesting into physical dysfunction and my body was finally giving me a signal. I followed up with several treatments after that day and I can honestly say that I have not had an attack in four years!
Tips To Help The Vagus Nerve Work Right For You
- Diaphragmatic Breathing - For my patients who are running like the Energizer bunny, I recommend setting a timer to go off every 60 minutes. When the timer goes off, take 10 deep belly breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Meditation - Quieting the mind for just 10 minutes a day can help restore brain health and keep your vagus nerve in check. I always recommend my favorite app Headspace. Check it out! It’s free!
- Neurobiofeedback - When meditation and deep breathing just aren’t cutting it. Neurobiofeedback is a type of therapy that helps to re-train the brain using real time displays of brain function. Visit the Ultimate Brain website to learn more about the benefits of neurobiofeedback.
- Maintenance Bodywork - Bodywork is anything that gives your body a little TLC. Hands-on therapy that resets your buttons. What happened to me four years ago was a blessing in disguise. It helped me understand the importance of incorporating a holistic global approach to treating the human body in my practice.
- Check out this awesome blog post called 32 Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for more ideas.
Through my own personal experience and those of my patients, I have realized that balancing the mind with the body is the key to healing. You can’t have one without the other. Getting maintenance bodywork done once a month will help you maintain vitality and better prepare your body to heal on its own when faced with distress. Living in a world that requires such high demands, it is important to take care of yourself.
As long as you are moving, breathing, eating, and talking, you need to do regular body tune-ups. Just like your car, if you don’t take proper care of it, it won’t give you lasting mileage. The same goes for your body. The garbage that goes in it must be taken out.
You can’t avoid stress in life. Sh*t happens. So when you’re feeling at your wits end, don’t just ignore the signs your body is giving you. Attend to them, take care of yourself. Health equals happiness.
Need to reset the effects of stress? Sign up here to get the latest holistic health tips right into your inbox.
1. Kampusch S, Kaniusas E, Szeles J “Modulation of Muscle Tone Sympathovagal Balance in Cervical Dystonia Using Percutaneous Stimulation of the Auricular Vagus Nerve. Artificial Organs 2015, 39(10): E202-E212
2. Sowder E, Gevirtz R, Shapiro W, Ebert C. “Restoration of Vagal Tone: A Possible Mechanism for Functional Abdominal Pain” Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. Springer, San Diego, CA. Published Online14 March 2010.
The blog content on this website is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding treatment, medications/supplements, or any medical diagnoses. This information is intended for educational purposes only and is in no way to substitute the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.