The Vagus Nerve
Let’s take a moment to explain the benefits of whole body cryotherapy on one of the most important parts of the body: The vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve, actually comprised of a pair of nerves right and left, extends from both sides of the brainstem just behind the ears, down the neck, across the chest, and through the abdomen. These nerves touch several major organs in your body — stomach and digestive tract, lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver, and kidneys. Specifically, it is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This rest and digest system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.
The vagus nerve is part of the autonomic side of the nervous system. This is the side that just happens without you thinking about it or controlling it. Breathing, heart rate, digestion, and even how we take in, process, and make meaning of our experiences are all directly related to the vagus nerve. It is also primarily responsible for voluntary muscles in the larynx and esophagus, supplying autonomic fibers to the heart and contributing to the gastrointestinal tract. It keeps our heart rate and blood pressure normal, automatically keeping communication between the brain and heart. The vagus nerve also stimulates smooth muscle contraction and glandular secretions in the gastrointestinal tract. It is incredible.
Research shows that a strong vagal tone (toned and working vagus nerve activity) makes the body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone has been associated with chronic inflammation. Strengthening your vagal tone can help relieve brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and digestive distress.
Vagus nerve stimulation has even been explored as a treatment for depression. In animal models, vagus nerve stimulation has antidepressant-like effects. Animal and human studies have shown that vagus nerve stimulation influences the activity of norepinephrine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters implicated in mood disorders. Like other antidepressant therapies, vagus nerve stimulation naturally increases the expression of the neurotrophic brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and activates its receptor. BDNF is a protein that promotes the survival of nerve cells.
As always, we can support our system’s natural (magical!) functions, or we can work against them. Let’s work with them! So how do we live to support our vagus nerve? Let’s take a look.
When the body adjusts to cold, the sympathetic system (fight-or-flight response) declines, while the parasympathetic system increases, which is mediated by the vagus nerve. You can use cryotherapy, (which feels good in so many ways!).