Stress, Gut Feelings, Emotional Bonding and Orgasms: The Wandering Vagus Nerve has it all.
In this article we are going to look in some detail at the Vagus nerve which is the longest of the cranial nerves . Vagus is latin for “wandering” and it describes the path this nerve takes through the body. Actually while classed as just one, it is actually two nerves that extend from the cerebellum and brain stem and down into the viscera and on the way it connects to the heart and all major organs and so could be considered largely responsible for the mind-body connection.
The Vagus nerve has many functions: regulating heart rate, speech, sweating, blood pressure, digestion, glucose production, and certain aspects of breathing. It is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system, initiating the relaxation response (from “flight and fight” to “rest and digest”), nearly 90% of the nerve fibers associated with the vagus nerve are sensory or afferent nerves that relay information back to the brain. It has been shown that not only does the vagus nerve relay information to the brain from our “second brain”, the enteric nervous system, in controlling digestion, but it may also be responsible for the transmission of gut feelings and instincts and have some role in mood, fear and anxiety. Swiss researchers demonstrated that not only were “gut instincts” from the Vagus nerve a significant influence on the level innate fear response, but a healthy Vagal tone* appeared to be important in overcoming a learned or conditioned fear response.
The Vagus nerve is linked to our hearing, eye contact and emotional expressions, and has an influence on the bonding hormone Oxytocin and there is evidence that a higher Vagal tone is associated with more closeness with others and social bonding as well as mother and infant bonding. The vagus nerve also appears to help control fertility and orgasms in women by connecting to the cervix, uterus and vagina and women can actually experience orgasms simply from the Vagus nerve.
One reason for the importance and diverse functions of the vagus nerve has been put forward by Dr Stephen Porges in his “Polyvagal theory” which theorises that the two branches are functionally distinct from each other : The more primitive Vegetative Vagus and the Smart Vagus and serve two different evolutionary stress responses. The former branch being responsible for digestion and the initiation of the freeze response in reaction to a threat which is inhibited should the sympathetic nervous system and the “flight or flight” response occurs. The smart Vagus is more evolved and is linked to social communication (via facial expression and vocalisation) and self-soothing behaviours. Porges puts forward that this is a hierarchy when exposed to challenge: The smart Vagus promotes calm states, self soothing and engagement, if this doesn’t work then the sympathetic flight or fight system kicks in and if that does not work the oldest, the vegetative Vagus, takes over and results in freezing and shutdown.
The electrical stimulation of the Vagus nerve has been shown to reduce and even inhibit inflammation with implications in the treatment of arthritis. Vagus nerve stimulation therapy is used in the treatment of medication-resistant depression and for the treatment of epilepsy. But you don’t need electrical stimulation to activate the Vagus nerve: Meditation (particularly mindfulness and loving kindness meditations and “Om” Chanting), Slow breathing (deep abdominal breathing), Massage, Yoga, Laughter (and interestingly vagus nerve stimulation sometimes results in laughter), Singing loudly (working the throat muscles), cultivating gratitude, positive company and even sleeping on your right side all activate the Vagus nerve. Activation of the vagus nerve does have many benefits, but before you all go rushing out to bring it into full activation it is worth mentioning that if it becomes overactive, it can take blood away from the brain and it is possible that you will faint (Vagal Nerve Fainting or vasovagal syncope). This can also happen when someone becomes emotionally charged for example fainting in response to blood or needles and is due to the Vagus nerve becoming overactive in reaction to the fear response.
As previously mentioned, there is a connection between the cervix, uterus and vagina and Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk in their book “The Science of Orgasm” investigated the vagus nerve and deep vaginal orgasms in women who have spinal cord injuries which, due to the lack of feeling, prevented orgasm. However, the Vagus nerve doesn't travel through the spinal cord and women could have orgasms if they had deep, penetrative sexual activities that affect the cervix and stimulate the uterus. So could methods which activate the Vagus nerve be of use for women to experience orgasm? Suzie Heumann (Tantra.com) thinks so, the combination of slow deep breathing, an open mouth while emitting low sounds from the abdomen activates the nerve fully and can lead to longer lasting, powerful orgasm and possibly female ejaculation. Suzie Heumann has opened a world of interesting speculation: the activation of the throat chakra by noise and the link between the throat and the cervix, the deep open mouthed breathing used in tantra and a whole host of practices, the intimate connection an active Vagus nerve generates via Oxytocin, memory and emotion via various neurotransmitters and even the spontaneous laughter that sometimes occurs how much of this is related to the activation of the Vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system to yield deeper orgasmic experiences.
Vasant G Rele in his book “The Mysterious Kundalini” has interpreted Kundalini as serpent power as the Vagus nerve, others say that the vagus nerve ganglions connect to the seven energy centres and represent physical “proof” of their existence. Others say that though there is activation of the Vagus nerve it is not kundalini but a physical manifestation of a metaphysical event and yet others say be aware about all of the ideas but don’t get hung about the technicalities: just stay open to the experiences you are having and that is perhaps the thing to do, increase your vagal tone and simply experience.
*Vagal tone: is the continuous, chronic, passive activity of the vagus nerve and the strength of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is not measured directly, but by measuring the natural changes in the heart rate and respiration which are due to inhalation and exhalation. This is done by measuring periodic changes in the HR due to breathing to give us the amount of heart rate variability and basically the greater the heart rate variability the greater the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and Vagus nerve.