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What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve has recently become a hot topic in the world of wellness and medicine and for good reason. Recent research has uncovered exciting new understandings surrounding this major nerve and its role in the nervous system. As a functional stress management specialist, I’m especially excited about the increasing attention this amazing component of the nervous system has been getting, as it has great potential in helping people better understand their stress responses.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, serving both sensory and motor functions. This special nerve gets its name from the Latin word for wandering because it wanders down the side of the neck and through much of the abdomen. The nerve itself plays a role in many actions within the body including sending information from the gut to the brain, innervating the diaphragm and assisting in deep breathing, decreasing inflammation in the body, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and fear and anxiety management.

Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal theory which has been gaining attention recently explains that the vagus nerve has a lot to do with our response to high-stress situations such as playing an integral role in the freeze response to high-stress triggers. This theory attributes even more significance to the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system and all rest and digest functions within the body.

The vagus nerve has also been proven to play a leading role in the brain-gut axis. A review published in the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology journal in 2014 shared that not only is the vagus nerve likely to communicate with the bacteria and advanced microbiome within the intestines, but it also sends information from the bacteria back to the brain along with emotions and inflammation response.

All of this is wildly exciting if you are a health care or alternative healthcare provider, but for lay people, it means providers have new ways to “turn on” parasympathetic responses by vagal nerve toning. It also provides additional support for stress management approaches based on deep breathing, anti-inflammatory diets, and co-regulation in a therapeutic relationship; all things that I utilize here at Ahimsa Choice and that work to tone the vagal nerve and induce the parasympathetic nervous system response.


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