The present lockdown situation combined with potential physical threat and an unknown outcome is a scary mix to be living in. More recently science has connected the effects of chronic stress and impairment of the immune system. Some overt symptoms of stress are shallow breathing, higher heart rate, muscular tension, and quite often digestive symptoms. A key physiological contributor in managing stress, and all the effects listed above, is the Vagus nerve. It is #10 of the 12 cranial nerves and the primary parasympathetic “relaxation” pathway influencing the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, and other organs. The Vagus nerve is up to 90% afferent nerve fibers, which means it primarily delivers information from the organs back to the brain. This creates a workable feedback loop with which to manage the effects of stress.
One of the best and easiest ways to enhance your Vagus nerve’s function is through diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm moves up and down allowing for a change in pressure. It is a steeply curved umbrella shape and pulls downward with inhalation filling the ribcage without flattening. The rhythmic motion of breathing mobilizes the inferior vena cava (large vein returning blood to the heart), changing the pressure in the aorta (large artery carrying oxygenated blood to the body), and decreasing pressure in the heart. When the diaphragm lowers, the aorta expands. When the diaphragm rises, it causes a contraction in the wall of the aorta. All of this enhances the circulation of blood and body fluids, which includes the immune system.
The secondary muscles are the abdominals, which are not as neurologically regulated and mostly under voluntary control so you have to think about using them. Whereas, the diaphragm detects blood gases, the acid-base balance, and monitors the respiratory rhythm, so use your diaphragm and feel your ribcage move when breathing.
Here is a simple breathing technique to have in your back pocket that can bolster the balancing function of the Vagus nerve. This is a Yoga pranayama practice. *Note photo above.
- Focus on your breath
- With one hand, have your thumb against one nostril and your ring finger against the other nostril.
- Close the right nostril and completely exhale through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril
- Repeat for 3 full inhalations and full exhalations
- Inhale and reverse the above steps for 3 full cycles:
- Close the left nostril and completely exhale through the right nostril.
- Close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril.
In the quest to stay healthy on all levels, body movement is a main tenet. Healthful benefits are primarily via breathing, boosting circulation, and promoting neurological communication. Physical activity increases the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuron growth and survival. Walking is always a great option. Now might be a good time to try something new. Maybe there are other options to explore and have fun. What’s most important is that you feel good during and after.
Here are a couple of fun resources that are currently offered online:
Derik Kleinhesselink: Gyrokinesis, Pilates mat, Barre sessions Wednesday at 11:00 AM and Friday at noon
Zumba sessions – Wednesday and Friday at 7:00 PM
on Facebook by donation
Wise Orchid Tai Chi & Qi Gong, https://wise-orchid.com/
classes via Zoom
Acupuncture and Visceral Manipulation include many great techniques that support the Vagus nerve thereby providing more resilience during times of high stress. Feel free to contact me for further ideas regarding a breathing practice or body movement ideas, as well as acupressure or abdominal self-treatment. Or if you’d like to share any practices that you enjoy, I would love the hear about it. We are all in this together.
1. Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601–630.
2. Raichlen, D. & Alexander, G. 1/2020. ‘Why Your Brain Needs Exercise: Key transitions in the evolutionary history of humans may have linked body and mind in ways that we can exploit to slow brain aging’, Scientific American, vol. 322, no. 1, pp. 28