The Vagus Nerve
A Superhighway in the Middle of the Body
The vagus nerve, or the wandering nerve, is a superhighway in the middle of our body. It has four entrances/exits on its highway between the head and neck, the heart and lungs, the gastrointestinal system and the pelvis. At every junction in the body, the vagus nerve seeks to bring us some form of safety.
The vagus starts in the right and left sides of the brain stem and exits on both the right and left side of the neck, going underneath the sternocleidomastoid muscle. The ears, face and throat are connected to the vagus. It helps in smiling, vocalizing and swallowing. It then goes to the heart, aorta and lungs to regulate our heartbeat at a steady 70 bpm and monitor oxygen levels in the blood.
From there, it enters the abdomen as it goes below the respiratory diaphragm, hitchhiking on the back and front of the esophagus. Both branches connect with just about everything in the abdomen to co-regulate many metabolic and physiological functions. One branch ends at Cannon’s Point on the large intestine, just lateral of the stomach. The other branch merges with the autonomic nervous system (ANS) plexi in the gut and pelvis. The most common function in the abdomen of the subdiaphragmatic vagus is the co-regulation of inflammation.
The fourth entrance/exit is the pelvis. It communicates via ANS plexi with many other nerves, especially the sacral parasympathetic and pudendal nerves, to regulate bowel, bladder, reproductive processes and sexual function. (See figure 1.)
These four locations along the superhighway all have a common feature—safety. In the head and neck, the vagus is associated with social safety, by unconsciously evaluating the facial expressions of other people, evaluating the tone of their voice and their body movement in general. Stephen Porges calls this neuroception.
At the heart is the deepest safety of life and death. The heart connects with the brain to do a survival dance when there are serious heart problems, including emotional and body problems. The vagus reports all its highway information to the heart first and then the brain. But life and death safety is a full spectrum from joy and happiness to sorrow and grief.
Abdominal safety is metabolic safety. The vagus connects with the gut microbiome and the lining of the entire intestinal tract. The majority of people now have degraded intestinal linings from processed foods and added sugar, a breakdown called “leaky gut”. This creates vascular inflammation systemically that is co-regulated by the vagus for an anti-inflammatory response. It then alerts the entire body, especially the heart and brain, to this fundamental lack of safety from the very foods and beverages we are consuming. The core of anxiety and depression can be found in the absence of metabolic safety.
Finally, the vagus extends down into the pelvic organs via the abdominal ANS plexi for what can be called moral safety. In this day and age of institutional sexual abuse and the loss of bowel, bladder, reproductive and sexual function from the results of industrial food and pharmaceuticals, the very institutions that are supposed to keep our bodies safe have failed to do so. This is evident in the pandemic of metabolic syndromes, the loss of function and breakdown throughout the body and especially the pelvis, resulting in a great loss of pleasure. (See Figure 2.)
Vagal tone can be consciously raised to generate more inner feelings of safety: compassion meditations for gratitude and forgiveness; trauma-informed mindfulness meditations; conscious movement practices such as yoga, chi kung or tai chi; coherent breathing and other types of breathing practices (this increases heart rate variability); and metabolic-informed bodywork such as biodynamic craniosacral therapy and colon hydrotherapy.
Learning to fully void the bladder is vital, as is emptying the colon. Constipation is a major side effect of most medications because they suppress vagal tone and interfere with reproductive processes. Regular masturbation with or without a partner is also recommended to heal the pelvic floor. The vagus transmits the orgasm reflex all the way up its superhighway and cannot be separated from bowel and bladder function or moral safety.
A fun way of raising vagal tone is by watching comedy on YouTube. Comedy is everywhere on the internet, and especially YouTube. Wait until the tears are streaming down your cheeks from laughing—that’s when you know the vagus nerve is working properly.
Michael J. Shea, Ph.D. and Sheila Shea will be teaching an extensive course on the vagus nerve called the Gut-Brain, January 18 to 20, and deeper connections of the Gut-Heart, March 15 to 17. For more information, call 520-325-9686 or register by clicking on “shop” at SheaHeart.com. See calendar section for details.