Breathe In and Breathe Out : The Vagus Nerve
The breath plays a key role in our health and well-being. We know that taking some big deep breaths can calm us down, but what is happening to our bodies? Well research and science is showing that this calming affect is due to the Vagus Nerve.
The Vagus Nerve is the largest cranial nerve of the human body, it runs from your brain down through your neck and chest to your abdomen, and is part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS,) responsible for rest-and-digest processes.
The term “vagus nerve” comes from the Latin word meaning wandering, an apt name because this cranial nerve has many connections and branches through the body.
For all its complexity, the vagus nerve seems to have quite a simple yet significant role - and that is to calm us down. Emerging research is establishing such how important the Vagus Nerve is and the links between the Vagus Nerve and simple deep breathing techniques.
Recently, scientists established that activating the vagus nerve can slow down your heart rate, switch off the inflammatory hormone cortisol and release calming chemicals into your system.
In 2018, two researchers from the Netherlands found that slow-breathing techniques with longer exhalations stimulate the Vagus Nerve. 1. (Longer exhalations defined as exhalations that are longer than your inhalations. e.g. Breathe in for 4, Breathe Out for 8.)
The researchers found that by practicing the 4:8 breathing technique for 2 minutes, the participants reported significantly lower levels of stress and answered more test questions correctly.
There seems to be a link between long exhalations and the activation of the Vagus Nerve, and that’s why the 4:8 technique works so well.
It’s simple technique - all you have to do is to control your breathing and count to 4 while you’re inhaling and then to 8 as you’re exhaling. It also helps to inhale through your nose and exhale through your lips.
1. Roderik J. S. Gerritsen and Guido P. H. Band
Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity (nih.gov)
2. Sylvain Laborde,Emma Mosley,Julian F. Thayer
Heart Rate Variability and Cardiac Vagal Tone in Psychophysiological Research – Recommendations for Experiment Planning, Data Analysis, and Data Reporting (nih.gov)