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You are a pile of nerves!
Surely you have heard this phrase or have even felt identified.
But what does it really mean? A literal pile of nerve fibers in our body? Or is it a phrase connected to our emotions?
There is a nerve, the longest we have, that runs through a large part of our body and that scientists say is strongly connected to our emotions.
We refer to nervio vago. And no, it’s not because I’m lazy.
What is the vagus nerve?
The name of the vagus nerve comes from Latin nervus vagus.
“Its root means to wander, and it really describes the way in which roams the body, as well as a homeless man, “detailed psychologist Kimberley Wilson on the show Made of Stronger Stuff (“Made of stronger material”) from BBC Radio 4.
The vagus nerve is divided into two: one that runs on the right side and the other on the left side of the human body.
It originates in the brainstem approximately behind the ears and runs down each side of the neck, across the chest, and into the abdomen.
The vagus nerve connects the brain stem to almost every organ in the body, with the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, kidneys, spleen, and gallbladder. It moves through almost all essential organs.
It’s like a great and critical highway or a transatlantic telephone cable with thousands and thousands of fibers inside, the specialists compare.
“80% of these cables are sensors, which means that the vagus nerve in its entirety is reporting what happens in all organs of the body to the brain,” Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institute in New York, described to the BBC. and a pioneer in the study of this nerve.
In scientific terms, the vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the functions and involuntary acts of our body.
“You have your sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that prepares you for action, while the parasympathetic nervous system you can think of as the off switch for that,” explained psychologist Wilson.
“So the vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system helps change the body mode for rest, relaxation, recovery, regulating your heart rate and breathing, basically all the fun things you need to live,” he listed.
Therefore, if the vagus nerve is this communication pathway with sensors that send signals from the body to the brain, this can have a direct impact on our mind, our thoughts and perhaps even our feelings, the specialists pointed out.
You are what you eat…
The evidence says that a balanced diet is good for your health.
But how does this translate into the specific functioning of our body? And what does the vagus nerve have to do with this?
To try to understand this complex and chained process, you have to start with the microbiome.
It is a collection of microorganisms, mainly bacteria that live throughout the body, but particularly in the intestine and that are responsible for defending the body from invading pathogens and bacteria.
But they also do some of the work of digesting food and extracting certain chemicals that are good for the brain.
And for these substances to reach the brain they need a route: the vagus nerve.
“There are many communication pathways between the intestine and the brain, but perhaps the most studied and that has interested us a lot is the vagus nerve. And I like to remind people that what happens in ‘the bum’ not only stays in ‘the bum’, it will actually affect our emotions“said John Cryan, Professor of Anatomy and Neuroscience at University College Cork, Ireland.
Unlike the genome, the microbiome is potentially modifiable and this is achieved through diet.
The neuroscientist listed a number of foods that are obtained from fermentation such as kimchi, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and yogurt that are good in fiber.
“It has also been shown that there are many vegetables rich in probiotics that have beneficial effects on gut-brain signaling, “he explained.
In short, eating vegetables is good, as any doctor would say.
“The fibrous component of vegetables, in particular chemicals such as insulin, feed the microbiome that allows the synthesis of chemicals that (in turn) stimulate the vagus nerve to activate parts of the brain that will make you feel in a particular way,” explained the Dr. Xand van Tulleken, from the program Made of Stronger Stuff de la BBC.
Vagus nerve stimulation
There are medical treatments that stimulate the vagus nerve for therapeutic reasons, using a small device similar to a pacemaker that gives a electrical impulse.
Currently, it has limited medical use for conditions such as depression and epilepsy that are difficult to treat.
“The device sends a smooth and regular electrical stimulation along the (vagus) nerve to the brain. Somehow this calms the irregular brain activity that leads to seizures. Therefore, it may be that the activation of the vagus nerve causes the brain releases chemicals, neurotransmitters, that reduce seizure activity, “explained Dr. van Tulleken.
But its effectiveness varies greatly depending on the patient.
There is also research on vagus nerve stimulation that can be applied to treatments for diseases that cause inflammation in the body, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
“If you understand that the vagus nerve has the ability to be like car brakes to stop inflammation, there is the possibility of hacking it with devices or drugs to turn off inflammation,” said researcher Kevin Tracey.
If we put diseases and treatments aside, on a personal level we can also stimulate the vagus nerve to lower levels of anxiety and stress.
Among the techniques are sing, tarar or repeat mantras.
A 2013 study with showgirls showed that these activities help keep the rhythm of the heart beat. And this is achieved through the vagus nerve.
“This makes me think of yoga, which is very naturally part of (stimulation) practice. Activities like singing and reciting a song vibrate the throat and deep diaphragmatic breathing, which we know stimulates the vagus nerve,” adds psychologist Wilson.
In the future, perhaps the fusion of new technologies with old and well-known practices will help to obtain a benefit for our physical, mental and emotional health.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.