The Vagus Nerve | Sam Bloom on the Benefits of Healthy Nerve Function and Wild Swimming
Our series with nutritionist Sam Bloom continues with information on how to stimulate the vagus nerve and the health benefits of cold-water therapy/wild swimming.
As cold-water swimming becomes more and more on-trend it is interesting perhaps useful to know what is behind it that makes it so beneficial. Aside from making us feel good with a rush of endorphins, it also helps stimulate the vagus nerve.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve, otherwise known as the wanderer, is the primary control for the parasympathetic nervous system. It acts as the rest and digest indicator that counteracts our stress response. Keeping the parasympathetic nervous system in balance enables our body to regenerate, self-heal, and feel nourished.
Our vagus nerve is the mechanism our body uses to carry reports from the digestive system to the brain. It transmits information to or from the surface of the brain to tissues and organs elsewhere in the body. Therefore, if we do not have a healthy vagal tone is it possible that we will experience varying degrees of symptoms such as brain fog, poor sleep, food sensitivities, anxiety, and poor digestion. No other nerve in the body has such a broad and far-reaching effect as the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that emanate from the brain. As such, it has influence over countless functions in the body.
· In the brain itself, it helps control anxiety and mood.
· In the gut, it increases stomach acidity, gut flow/motility, and other digestive enzyme production.
· Low stomach acid is a major source of gut-related health conditions, so an underactive vagus nerve is correlated to the root cause of many health conditions.
· In the heart, it controls heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure.
· In the pancreas, it controls blood sugar balance and digestive enzymes.
· In the liver, it controls bile production and detoxification.
· In the gall bladder, it controls bile release to help break down fats.
· In the kidneys, it promotes general function including water balance, glucose control, and sodium excretion which helps control blood pressure.
· In the bladder, it controls the voiding of urine.
· In the spleen, it helps to reduce inflammation.
· In the sex organs, it helps to control fertility and sexual pleasure including orgasms.
· In the mouth and tongue, it helps to control the ability to taste and saliva production through salivary gland control.
· In the eyes, it activates tear production through the lacrimal glands.
What are the Benefits of Cold-Water Swimming?
Any open-water swimmer will wax poetic about the pleasures of immersing yourself in cold, open water, often in remote areas such as lakes or rivers. It transcends exercise and offers an invigorating mindfulness and wellness experience all its own. However, you can receive the benefits even if you swim in cold water in a pool, such as a lido, during the winter or early spring. Once you’ve taken your deep breath and made the plunge, you can expect a boost to circulation in the body, a flush of endorphins, and improved sleep. The multitude of benefits wild swimming can bring should also be received alongside a careful caution: choosing your location is paramount. Finding a safe place to swim, swimming alongside a friend or as part of a group, and ensuring you have appropriate protective clothing for during and after are ways to enjoy this electrifying activity while reducing its potential risks.
What if Cold-Water Swimming Isn’t for You?
If you’re not a fan of the cold or don’t have easy access to a location or facility for it, there’s no need to despair. There are many more ways to support and stimulate your vagus nerve. From those more popular, like yoga and breathwork, to those lesser-known such as gargling. Rest assured, we will explain!
As an alternative to cold-water therapy, try gargling as you get your daily hydration. This method involves drinking several glasses of water per day and gargling each sip. Be sure to gargle long and deep - it should feel like a challenge.
Another fun option to get the vagus nerve activated is singing. Sing as loud as you can when possible! This works the muscles at the back of the throat. It’s like doing vagus nerve sprints, not to mention a joyful and cathartic release of tension.
Other potential activities include:
· Yoga, deep breathing, and meditation
· Taking probiotics and omega-3 supplements
· Chewing food very well and eating in a relaxed environment
· Limiting exposure to negative stress