Even though I don’t have autism, Asperger’s nor Sensory Processing Disorder, often the Action Ideas listed below help me improve physically and mentally (and couldn’t we all tweak and improve those two areas?).
Today’s topic is great for the general population but has specific application for those with the three conditions listed above.
The vagus nerve (vagus means wanderer in Latin) gets its name because it’s the longest cranial nerve and ‘wanders through’ many parts of the body. It literally connects the brain, heart and gut (including emotional reactions), as well as other parts of the body to the brain. It has both sensory and motor functions, meaning it can collect and send information, and can stimulate muscles. It’s part of the parasympathic nervous system (rest and digest) which is the calm physical state where healing occurs.
After reading the last paragraph, it’s clear why someone with sensory, spectrum or emotional issues would be interested in having a healthy vagus nerve.
There are numerous ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. Let’s look at some of the free and fairly easy ones.
Most people have never heard of the Vagus Nerve. That won't be true for long. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has already been approved for refractory epilepsy and depression. But the therapeutic reach of this cranial nerve covers a roster of stress-related maladies such as hypertension, insomnia, anxiety, obesity, and the destructive domain of inflammation.
~ Paul Spector MD
1. I didn’t see this in any list I reviewed but I think the obvious should be mentioned. Since the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and the sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest) work like a toggle – when one is on, the other is off – we need to reduce the thoughts, activities or the environment that engages the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, we need to reduce stress. If you can, take steps to reduce your stress. Whether or not you can, also integrate a few of the options below.
2. Cold. This was new to me and might be to you. Being Finn, I’ve always been aware of having a sauna and then rolling in the snow or standing outside in the winter (done both). Earlier this year, the topic of cold showers seemed to be everywhere. Before I’d commit to such insanity, I needed a reason. Stimulation of the vagus nerve was one of the reasons why a cold shower is healthy.
Ice baths and cold showers are at one extreme (depending where you live, there is a big difference in the temperature of a cold shower). At the other end, are simpler activities, like drinking or splashing your face with cold water. Or putting ice in a Ziploc bag and holding on your face or either side of your neck. Somewhere I read (but now can't find), even 10 seconds of cold can stimulate the vagus nerve.
3. Deep Breathing. Because of the nerves in the chest and stomach areas, expansion of these areas will involve the vagus nerve. Even a few deep breaths can help, especially if done consistently. Perhaps get a double whammy by deep breathing three times before a meal. I say ‘double whammy’ because relaxing before a meal also changes the gut chemistry to aid in digestion.
4. Valsalva Maneuver. Increase the pressure on your chest by gently exhaling while pinching your nose and closing your mouth.
This one, makes me a bit nervous because of pressure on the ear drums when exhaled air can’t be released. Use at your own discretion.
5. Massage/Deep Touch. Not only does a massage or deep touch help to modulate the vagus nerve, the vagus nerve can also be regulated by reflexology. A foot massage is a good thing to add while watching T.V. or as part of a bedtime routine.
Perhaps related to that, I have a friend who ‘rolls’ every night for 10-20 minutes with either a foam roller or tennis ball. He does it to loosen tight muscles, but maybe there is also a vagus bonus.
Someone who loves deep hugs might also love a pressure vest for an anytime hug.
6. Auditory vibrations. Humming, chanting, singing, gargling all activate the vagus nerve in the head and neck. I wonder if external vibration would also help? Perhaps it would, if placed near the vagus nerve. We have vibrating mini-wands, brushes, small cuffs, cushions, and a few sample full body vibrating mats (not on website. See below***).
Vagus gambling isn’t clever. Instead, create a moderated, engaged vagus.
P.S. Reminder that a quick shot of cold just before bed is useful for sleep. To enter sleep, the body’s temperature drops slightly. Cold exposure jump starts that change.
P.P.S. I wonder, for people who are okay with dressing lightly in cooler weather, if part of it might be to stimulate a sluggish vagus nerve. I always assumed it was because the cold messages weren’t getting to the brain. And while that might be true, in this case, the affect of the lack of information might also be an aid in supporting the future messaging. Have you had any experience in this area? What do you think? Please share with me. I didn't come across anything about it. Your opinion/experience interests me.
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The vagus nerve does much more than mentioned here. If interested, here are some helpful websites, in no particular order:
https://www.optimallivingdynamics.com/blog/how-to-stimulate-your-vagus-nerve-for-better-mental-health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction Several suggestions for stimulating the vagus nerve
https://www.selfhacked.com/blog/32-ways-to-stimulate-your-vagus-nerve-and-all-you-need-to-know-about-it/ Longer than some of the other websites listed. Has lots of easy to read info.
https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/explainer-what-vagus General info
https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/vagus-nerve General info
http://autismcoach.com/blog-info-articles/the-vagus-nerve-core-piece-of-the-autism-puzzle-part-1-what-is-this-and-why-is-it-important/ (error in paragraph under the diagram with 3 heads. “If it does not do its job, then the more primitive parasympathetic nervous system, dominates, resulting in a chronic flight or fight response by the body. “ probably was referring to the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the flight or fight response.
http://autismcoach.com/blog-info-articles/the-vagus-nerve-core-piece-of-the-autism-puzzle-part-2-how-does-it-cause-symptoms-of-autism/ Possible explanations but there are also other explanations for some of the arguments, such as leaky gut, leaky brain, or microbiome imbalance.
https://youtu.be/FWT_BLVOASI TED Talk. An example of the connection of the gut bacteria and information to the brain via the vagus nerve.