Vagus nerve: what is it? 10 functions explained

Surely you also know the saying “get on someone’s nerves”? Why we use the word nerve when something is bothersome to us quickly becomes clear when you take a closer look at your vagus nerve. It is the most important of your cranial nerves and connects your brain to almost all organs. If it’s not working properly, you can feel it very quickly and it can get really annoying. So if you want to know why this particular nerve is so important for your well-being, you should know the following facts about your vagus nerve.

In this article you will learn

  • what the vagus nerve is,
  • what role the vagus nerve plays in your body,
  • what your vagus nerve has to do with your heart,
  • what role the vagus nerve plays in medical therapies and
  • what exercises can activate your vagus nerve.

Anatomical facts about the vagus nerve (Nervus vagus)

The vagus nerve, also known as the vagus nerve , is the tenth and longest of our twelve cranial nerves. In contrast to the other 11 cranial nerves , it is not mainly responsible for supplying your head area, but connects almost all organs with your brain . For example, it influences your relaxation, your heart rate, your breathing or your digestion .

1. The vagus nerve – your body’s information superhighway

Your vagus nerve arises from your brain in the elongated spinal cord and enters the spinal cord through a small hole in your skull. From there it runs along your neck towards your chest, where it branches into the left and right nerves – strictly speaking, you even have two vagus nerves.

In the chest area it is close to your heart and lungs, migrates through the diaphragm into your abdominal area, where its terminus is. This end point is known as the “Cannon-Böhm point” and is located in your middle colon area.

On its way from head to stomach, the vagus nerve supplies its target organs through small nerve ramifications. These 100,000 nerve fibers carry information from the brain into your organs and vice versa from your body parts back into your brain . Without this information superhighway, the control of many of your body processes would not work.

2. Always stay calm! Your vagus nerve as a pacifier.

How does it come about that you can not consciously control certain processes in your body such as your digestion, your breathing or your heartbeat This is due to your autonomic nervous system . It consists of the sympathetic nerve , which is always active when you have to perform at its best and is therefore also referred to as the escape or combat nerve. The other part of your autonomic nervous system is called the parasympathetic and is the antagonist of the sympathetic. It is therefore also referred to as the recovery nerve. Your vagus nerve is part of this parasympathetic system and is primarily responsible for your body’s regeneration.

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The vagus nerve is the highway of your nervous system.

The example of so-called reflex cardiac arrest shows how important your vagus nerve is for the functioning of your heart. If your vagus nerve is extremely irritated, for example by immersing your body in very cold water (<4 degrees Celsius) or swallowing objects (bolus death) , cardiac arrest can occur. Your parasympathetic system reduces the activity of your heart via your vagus nerve to such an extent that it no longer works.

3. With heart and brain – your vagus nerve as a mediator

Your heart is subject to a complex and sophisticated regulation . This happens through your vegetative nervous system surrounding the heart. Neurocardiologists also speak of the “heart brain” , which is connected to your head brain.

Your vagus nerve plays a key role in these connections . Its job is to calm your heartbeat. This happens exclusively through a nerve node in the right atrium of your heart, which is responsible for the heart rate. The vagus nerve regulates your heart rate, i.e. your pulse, and slows it down by releasing the messenger substance acetylcholine .

The expression “my heart stopped in shock” or “my heart opened up” is not a coincidence: the messages of stress or happiness are passed on from your brain to your heart via the vagus nerve .

The broken heart!

The broken heart not only literally exists, it is also known in medicine as “Broken Heart Syndrome” . When symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath and a drop in blood pressure occur, doctors first think of a heart attack. In 1990, however, the “broken heart” syndrome was described for the first time in Japan, which characterizes heart attack symptoms without a heart attack and is also known as stress cardiomyopathy. The syndrome is probably triggered by the flooding of the heart and circulation with the messenger substances adrenaline and noradrenaline .

4. What your vagus nerve has to do with fainting

So your heart is closely connected to your brain via your vagus nerve . This is also why you can pass out. Because when you faint, also known as syncope, your vagus nerve reacts to certain stimuli.

When fear, stress, crowded tightness or standing for long periods of time become too much for your body, your vagus nerve reacts and takes over the upper hand over the sympathetic nervous system. This so-called vasovagal reflex acts on your blood vessels by causing them to relax. This in turn causes your blood pressure to drop , which leads to a short-term shortage of blood in your brain. You pass out.

5. The vagus nerve knows why you should listen to your stomach!

If you’re someone who listens to their gut instincts, there is a very good reason for that. Because your stomach, or rather your gastrointestinal tract, is closely connected to your brain. In order for this exchange to work, your vagus nerve forwards the information from your stomach to your brain and vice versa.

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In addition to these emotional signals, the vagus nerve is also necessary for your digestion . Because muscles in the stomach and intestines have to move in a coordinated manner so that the digestive organs can properly digest your food .

These movements, also known as motility, are mediated by the vagus nerve. It’s like a “main power cord” for your digestion .

Another player in the communication between stomach and head is of course your intestinal microbiota : The billions of small microorganisms in your intestines have a real say when it comes to the regulation of digestion and emotions. They influence your emotions via messenger substances such as serotonin and they also process food that you would otherwise not be able to use at all.

The importance of your vagus nerve in medicine

Now that you know how important your vagus nerve is to your health , you shouldn’t be surprised that this cranial nerve has caught the attention of doctors and scientists. Methods such as activation, calming and invasive stimulation of this cranial nerve are the focus of medical therapies.

If you want to know how the vagus nerve can be treated, just read the following facts:

6. Malefactor vagus nerve

If you feel sick regularly for no apparent reason , it may also have a psychological background. Because stress and strain hit us on the stomach. The vagus nerve can play a central role here, as it carries information from the brain into your gastrointestinal tract and back again.

Stimulating your vagus nerve, for example by breathing deeply in and out, can help you rebalance your parasympathetic nervous system and relieve the nausea it causes.

7. Hicks! What your vagus nerve has to do with hiccups

Hiccups can be quite annoying and really get on your nerves. That’s true in the truest sense of the word. Because hiccups occur when nerves in your diaphragm are stimulated , for example via the vagus nerve .

Stimuli like:

  • eating and drinking too hastily and quickly
  • much alcohol
  • very hot or cold food or
  • psychological influences such as stress, excitement and fright

can trigger cramping of the diaphragm. You, too, are sure to have good tips on what to do about the annoying “hiccup”. Most of the time, all methods rely on calming the vagus nerve through controlled breathing . Your parasympathetic nervous system will be in balance again and your hiccups will go away after a short time.

8. The vagus nerve stimulation against epilepsy and depression

That stimulation of the vagus nerve can be a therapeutic option was first observed in epilepsy patients. By applying pressure to a specific point on the neck where the vagus nerve runs superficially, epileptic seizures could be prevented.

Since the depressive moods of these patients also improved, the therapy of vagus nerve stimulation was approved in 2006 even for therapy-resistant depression .

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In this technique, a small stimulator is implanted in your collarbone region that provides regular stimuli. The impulses generated in this way stimulate your vagus nerve, which then passes them on to your brain, thereby positively influencing your emotions .

9. Strength lies in rest – your excessive immune system

A well- functioning immune system is important to you. So far so good. But what does this have to do with your cranial nerve? Scientists suspect a lot, because studies show that an overreaction of your immune system is linked to numerous diseases such as allergies, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis . The regulation of these immune reactions are partly mediated by the vagus nerve.

When you have an infection or an injury, a stimulus travels along your vagus nerve to your brain. Inflammatory substances such as cytokines and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) are produced. If the inflammatory reaction has to be stopped, this is done, among other things, by acetylcholine, which was released by your vagus nerve .

Corona, COVID19 and the vagus nerve

According to a recent theory your vagus nerve could possibly even an important role in connection with the by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 induced COVID-19 disease play . The virus may dock on a receptor for the messenger substance acetylcholine and thus disrupt your immune system, which reacts with an inflammatory reaction. French researchers are currently investigating whether nicotine may have a therapeutic role in COVID-19 as it competes with the virus for the same receptors.

 10. The vagus meditation – quick relaxation in your everyday life

Vagus meditation offers you a quick and complex opportunity for regeneration . It harmonizes the autonomic nervous system and can thus improve your heart rate variability (HRV), i.e. the ideally somewhat variable interval between your individual heartbeats .

To stimulate the vagus nerve, meditation is a great support.

 

This meditation consists, among other things, of breathing techniques such as larynx vibration , in which mantras are connected to deep exhalation through purring, humming and singing. This will stimulate your vagus nerve, which will help you relax. This method is very practical because you can quickly and easily integrate it into your everyday life .

10 fascinating facts about the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and connects your brain to almost all organs in your body. That’s what makes him so special. Because of this, stimulating or activating your vagus nerve has emerged as a new field of medicine. The vagus nerve stimulation has been established for conditions such as epilepsy and depression. However, doctors and scientists have already recognized the ravages of time and are also trying to treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and burnout by stimulating the vagus nerve . So maybe many people will be able to benefit from these new therapies in the future.

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