Harnessing the Vagus Nerve
The article Hacking the Nervous System describes a research study using electrical implants that stimulate the vagus nerve to treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. The vagus nerve is a core component of our nervous systems. It runs from the brain throughout the body and is directly connected to the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response.)
Research showed that people who had increased vagal tone (a stronger vagus nerve response) had decreased inflammation, were happier, and had overall better well-being. Here's why I'm excited about this research:
- New theories are suggesting that depression may be partially caused by inflammation in the mind & body. Therefore, one can surmise that if increased vagal tone decreases inflammation in the body, then it can have positive effects on depressive symptoms as well.
- Later in the article, the author reports on another study (Fredrickson & Kok, 2010) where meditation was used to measure vagal tone and emotional health. Meditators were shown to have increased vagal tone & positive emotions. (Meditation = a core component of yoga).
- Yoga has been shown to directly impact the parasympathetic nervous system, of which the vagus nerve is a key player. One simple way we do this is through pranayama (breath work.) These research studies potentially confirm WHY pranayama works: because the exhale directly activates the vagus nerve. Thus, by attending to our breath and increasing the length of our exhale, we can simply and easily improve vagal tone.