Louise Carmichael is one of our Reflexology specialists. Here, she tells us a bit about the Vagus nerve and its importance in relation to reflexology treatments and general health and well-being.
The Vagus Nerve – What Is It?
The Vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves and is vital to a healthy and optimally functioning nervous system.
As part of the autonomic nervous system, its main function is the control of the ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic nervous system. This is a system that operates in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system – more commonly known as the ‘flight or fight’ response – which, unfortunately, most of us find ourselves operating within a lot of the time. Containing both motor and sensory nerves, the Vagus nerve links the brain stem to all the major organs of the body – including the heart, the lungs and the digestive system.
What Causes Damage to the Vagus Nerve?
Damage to the Vagus nerve can occur as a consequence of diabetes, alcoholism and viral or upper respiratory tract infections. Stress, fatigue and anxiety can also cause inflammation of the Vagus nerve. So it’s not surprising that therapeutic stimulation of the Vagus nerve can help in the treatment of these very same conditions.
Stimulation of the Vagus nerve has also been used to help the management of other conditions such as anxiety, depression, addiction and severe migraines – as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
How to stimulate the Vagus Nerve?
If you’re not so keen on the idea of exercising the muscles at the back of your neck by singing in a cold shower – then there are some slightly less unusual ways to initiate healthy function of the Vagus nerve.
Yoga and Tai Chi – or indeed any other sort of relaxation, meditation and deep breathing exercises – will increase healthy function by encouraging the parasympathetic system function to take precedence. Exercise can also fire up this function by stimulating gut activity – see the section below on the ‘gut brain’ for more information. A massage around the carotid sinus area of the neck also aids Vagus stimulation. Knowing this makes it easy to understand why we sometimes reach out intuitively and offer a neck massage to someone who’s feeling stressed.
In hand and foot reflexology, there are also corresponding reflex points which can be worked in turn to stimulate Vagus nerve function. Even a gentle foot massage can re-balance the Vagus nerve and help to lower blood pressure.
The Gut Brain and the Vagus Nerve
Eating late, having nightmares, getting butterflies before an exam or presentation, or that ‘gut-feeling’ we get about a person or a situation – all these things are sure signs of the connection between our brain and our gut. Neurotransmitters in the intestinal wall act as receptors in the digestive tract, communicating with the brain via the autonomic nervous system and Vagus nerve. They’re a key influencer when it comes to our overall health and well-being. And so, by eating well and ensuring that we have a gut full of healthy bacteria, we are also able to ensure optimal brain function.
Reflexology Treatments and Cancer Care
Part of my recent training at St Christopher’s Hospice focused on reflexology for cancer care. Vagus nerve techniques are often used to give relief to the anxiety and uncertainty that is experienced by cancer patients. Reflexology treatments can combine Vagus nerve and endocrine system techniques together to help calm and relax. The effects of such a treatment are usually felt after just one treatment, although a course of treatments (particularly for someone suffering with a long-term condition) can prove to be even more beneficial.
Reflexology at Whole Harmony
If you’d like to know more about how a reflexology treatment may benefit you, please get in touch here to speak with me or arrange an appointment.
Written by Louise Carmichael