Come for a wander with us as we explore the silent systems that make you breathe, digest and react to learn how you can improve your health by harnessing the therapeutic power of singing for your Vagus Nerve!
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The Vagus Nerve connects the brain to the gut (intestines and stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, neck (pharynx, larynx and oesophagus), ears and the tongue. New research suggests that the Vagus Nerve also connects to the vagina and uterus and may play a role in sexual pleasure and arousal! So yes, it’s important!
The Vagus Nerve gets its name from the Latin word ‘vagus’ (meaning ‘wanderer’) because the nerve wanders from the brain into so many different parts of the body, creating links from the neck, heart, lungs, and the abdomen and then connecting all of this to the brain.
The Vagus Nerve is how the brain controls the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system.
In your body there are two kinds of nervous systems; both are automatic (they do their thing without you thinking about it at all). Let’s introduce them.
Parasympathetic nervous system or ‘rest and digest’.
This system does a lot of things that keep your body running. For example, it:
regulates your resting heartbeat
regulates normal breathing
tells your stomach and intestines to digest food
Having your body in rest and digest mode most of the time is good for us. It’s in this mode that the body can heal, rejuvenate and replenish. In this state rest is more restful, food is more nourishing, and we can connect more easily with joy. All of which sounds pretty darn healthy!
The Sympathetic nervous system or ‘fight or flight’.
Basically, this system is aimed at keeping us safe from danger. When we sense a threat, it gets us ready to take action; to get away, to fight, or even to freeze until the danger passes. This system:
makes our heart beat faster
makes us breathe faster, sometimes more shallow breathing too
and it also tells our stomach and guts to stop digesting and get ready to run! This could mean we have the urge to go to the toilet!
Our fight/flight response, which helps us run away from lions, also activates to modern dangers both big and small (from being unable to pay the rent, to not being invited to a party – your brain says, nope, that’s a lion: Engage the sympathetic nervous system!)
The parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems work together.
Most of the time, it’s the parasympathetic system that gets the limelight. It’s the normal situation where the body breathes evenly and without effort, the heart beats evenly and the digestion system does its thing. When stressful stuff happens, our sympathetic system takes the wheel to help us get through it and, if all goes to plan, the stressful thing is over pretty quickly, and our parasympathetic system can get back in the drivers’ seat.
This is how it should work, right? You may have noticed, however, that modern stress is less like the occasional lion popping up and more like a constant low-level hum of stressful, busy and overwhelming things.
So, what does all this mean for our wandering friend, the Vagus Nerve?
There are definitely times when your beautiful, life nourishing parasympathetic nervous system is not going to get a chance to do its thing to its full, glorious extent unless we actively make room for it.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve is one way that we can bring our parasympathetic nervous system back online to do its wonderful work.
You’re Simply the Best (3 exercises that stimulate the Vagus Nerve)
This is based on a breathwork practice from yoga called Bhramari Pranayama. Start by sitting comfortably. Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down on your back. Consciously release tension in your body and bring your attention to your breath. Slow your breath down by taking some slow, long inhales and full exhales.
Now you’re ready to do the bee-hum. On your next breath, draw air in through your nose. As you exhale, keep your mouth closed and release a humming sound. Inhale deeply. Exhale, hum. Continue for a few rounds of breath. Give yourself the gift of really feeling the vibrations. What parts of your face and body feel them the most?
Singing (in the shower, in the car, literally anywhere and don’t mind the sideways glances!)
Who’s your go to? Tina? Cher? Adele? You’ve got so many cool women to sing along to!
Singing – especially the loud kind – involves deep breathing and a big old vibration of the vocal cords. Even better, it’s a sure-fire way to activate the Vagus Nerve.
A word of advice here: A lot of us believe that we don’t have a ‘good’ voice or that our voice is bad in some way. Tell that inner critic to go packing. this vocalising is for you and your mate, the Vagus Nerve.
Join a choir!
I know, I know. Ths isn’t an exercise as such, and it does involve a bit more preparation than just singing in the shower. But it can be a great way to build singing into your week.
If the thought of singing in front of people scares you, just know that you can often find groups that are inclusive and less about ‘sounding good’ and more about helping you gain confidence in your own, unique voice. The Queer Voice Lab in nipaluna is a great example. Not to mention there’s often a lot of talking and laughing during rehearsals and both those things also stimulate the Vagus Nerve!
Ghati, Nirmal, et al. "A randomized trial of the immediate effect of bee-humming breathing exercise on blood pressure and heart rate variability in patients with essential hypertension." EXPLORE 17.4 (2021): 312-319. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2020.03.009
Breath practice scientifically proven to calm your mind (2022)
5 Ways to stimulate your Vagus Nerve. 2020. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/vagus-nerve-stimulation/
The vagus nerve (pronounced Vegas, baby!) sounds like a party in your body, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. 2022. https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/the-vagus-nerve