I’ve been thinking a lot about nerve.
One nerve in particular, that appears to hold a potent key to reversing depression, heart disease, and autoimmune disease.
This nerve also provides the anatomical basis for the effectiveness of meditation and breathwork in reversing so many conditions, from depression to chronic pain.
The wandering wonder
It’s called the vagus (sounds like Vegas) nerve. It starts out in the brain, travels down the neck, and wanders throughout the organs in the torso, providing a link of communication between the brain and the rest of the body.
The vagus nerve is the central command of your parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates your ability to “rest and digest”. And science shows that it has a profound effect on almost every aspect of your health.
The stronger your vagus nerve, the quicker you are able to recover from stressful events. It also protects you from diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
A robust vagus makes you happier, more resilient, and helps you feel more connected to other people.
A weak vagus nerve, on the other hand, means you are more likely to experience severe inflammation, anxiety, and chronic disease.
Proof of its power
Researchers studied the powerful effect of the vagus nerve in 20 patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis, a painful and debilitating disease in which the body attacks the joints. These patients were fitted with a device similar to a pacemaker, and used it to stimulate the vagus nerve directly through the neck.
Eighty percent of participants experienced significant improvement, with many of them getting of anti-inflammatory meds entirely.
The Depression Connection
Now, remember that inflammation is the only proven biochemical link to depression – not serotonin or any other neurotransmitter (no matter what the drug companies tell you).
So the question is, how do you stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve, in order to prevent disease, reduce inflammation, and heal depression – without attaching an electrical device to your nervous system?
- Diaphragmatic breathing – also known as belly breaths. This how you naturally breathe when you are relaxed. Similarly, you can trigger relaxation and improve the health of your vagus by consciously breathing this way.James Gordon, MD, author of the book “Unstuck”, shares how he teaches this type of breathing to his patients:
“…Just sit in your chair and let your breathing deepen. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth (which is a particularly relaxing way to breathe) and allow your belly to be soft. If you breathe this way the breath tends to go deeper into the lungs, there’s better exchange of oxygen. The vagus nerve will start working to produce relaxation to balance out the tension… If you relax your belly, all the other muscles of your body will begin to relax.”
- Loving-kindness meditation, or metta. This type of compassion-based meditation involves sending loving thoughts toward yourself, then your loved ones, gradually extending it towards other beings and all living things.
- Light exercise – Most people find that when they are active, their digestion works better. Healthy vagus activity is necessary for the gut to work properly (see “rest and digest”, above). Since exercise is also strongly associated with happiness and better health, the activity of the vagus is likely central to this process.
The Way Home
The road to being medication-free, happy, and healthy can seem like a long, complicated process.
But this latest research on the power of the vagus nerve, and our ability to stimulate it, underscores a simple truth: that learning how to relax, breathe, and become at ease with yourself and the world, is still one of the most powerful forms of medicine you can give yourself.
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