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The Vagus Nerve: This is how you make this 'switch' of your nervous system strong and resilient

In our modern society, many people are constantly in the action mode. There is therefore little time for recovery and that has consequences for your well-being. Your nervous system plays an essential role in this. In particular the vagus nerve; the switch of your nervous system that helps you to switch smoothly between tension and relaxation.

Text: Suze Retera Images: Herman Lankwarden Publishes by:

Suze Retera is a psychologist and specialises in the functioning of the vagus nerve. She updates your knowledge about this gifted nerve. But first she takes you into the wonderful world of your nervous system.

Suze: 'Are you comfortable in your own skin? Then you probably don't think about the processes in your body that keep you healthy and happy. But as soon as there is a hitch somewhere, you do. You notice this, for example, because you worry more, sleep badly or suffer from digestive problems than you are used to. Your hormones can also be out of balance. Although it may not be obvious, your nervous system is often the best starting point to deal with these kinds of complaints and get your body back in balance.

The Nervous System and your Wellbeing

Your nervous system is the linchpin when it comes to your well-being. It determines how all the different organs in your body function and connects them to each other. Think of your nervous system as an ingenious highway with many branches. Information and instructions are transported over the roads, for example from your organs to your brain and vice versa. This allows your body to optimally adjust the production of hormones, your digestive system and your wake-sleep rhythm to your situation at that time.

The Autonomic Nervous System

Your nervous system consists of several parts. I like to explain the functioning of the autonomic nervous system to you out. As the name suggests, this part of your nervous system functions on its own; you don't have to do anything for that. It controls the autonomic processes in your body such as your heartbeat, breathing, digestion, your stress response and your endocrine system. However, the fact that it functions independently does not mean that you cannot influence it.

Off/Restorative Mode: Parasympathetic Nervous System

Your autonomic nervous system roughly consists of an 'on state' (sympathetic activation) and an 'off/recovery state' (parasympathetic activation). When we feel safe and can relax, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. In this state, your heart rate and blood pressure drop, more blood goes to your digestive system and your immune system strengthens. Your body can then recover, process experiences and you can connect socially with others.

Action Mode: Sympathetic Nervous System However, when you need to act because of danger or you need to focus, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. It initiates the processes needed to be alert and responsive, or fight/flight. More cortisol is released, which means that more glucose enters your bloodstream, which immediately supplies your muscles with energy. Your heart rate goes up, as does your blood pressure. And your breathing speeds up to get more oxygen into the blood.

Physical Processes put on Hold

In this action mode, however, a number of processes are also put on hold. This way less blood goes to your digestive and reproductive organs, your focus narrows (and you become less open-minded), less blood goes to your skin for repair and your immune system weakens. In short: everything that is important for the future stagnates or weakens. As long as you survive this moment first... From an evolutionary perspective, this is the best solution. Survival is the most important thing. In the past, periods of high stress usually didn't last very long: a predator comes after you, you fight or flee and the coming soon known. If you survived, your nervous system switches back to a parasympathetic rest state.Your body can then get started again

recovery, digestion of your food and your reproductive potential for the future.


The vagus nerve is also referred to as the "wandering nerve". As the longest nerve, it roams with complex branches through much of your body. Because of its many branches, it connects your brain with important organs such as your intestines, stomach, heart and lungs. The vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system (the 'resting position') and regulates its activation. As a result, it influences your breathing, digestion and heart rate, among other things. This nerve also affects your mental well-being. A resilient vagus nerve therefore has a major impact on your well-being and makes you more resistant to stress.

Freeze as a Response to Trauma or Stress

If the sympathetic response is not sufficient and you experience stress for too long or an experience is traumatising, there is a second parasympathetic state: freezing. This is a dissociative state in which you are less aware of your body and the world around you. This can look like the 'recovery mode' because you seem calm, but there is no recovery here. You are on autopilot and emotionally somewhat flat. Rather than rest, the underlying cause is stress or trauma.


A Wandering Nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in the body. It starts in the brainstem and runs down your neck and vertebrae in two pathways it branches out to your ears, face, throat, and the organs in your chest and abdomen. This 'wandering' nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (off/recovery mode) and regulates it. At the same time, it ensures that sympathetic reactions are inhibited.

Stress and the Vagus Nerve Your vagus nerve is like a road network that connects the organs in your abdomen and chest to your brain. The flow of information that runs through the vagus nerve is from the body to the brain. It informs the brain about what is going on in your body and puts endocrine (hormone-producing glands) to work there. They give up in turn release hormones that put your organs to work via the bloodstream. A well-functioning vagus nerve therefore ensures fast and clear communication from the organs to the brain. This is how the brain knows what is going on in your body and what it needs. Your digestive system is a good example of this. The digestion of your food already starts in your mouth. Through your saliva, your vagus nerve gets information about what you eat and which macronutrients (fat, protein or carbohydrates) are on their way to your stomach. This passes it on to your stomach and intestines, so that they can already activate the right amount of digestive juices and intestinal flora. The stomach and intestines, in turn, send signals to the brain via the vagus nerve to indicate that you are full or that you still need certain nutrients that will make you hungry again. Prolonged stress, which prevents the vagus nerve from functioning properly, disrupts this process.

Calming Down through Connection with Others

Because the vagus nerve also has branches to the larynx, your ears and your face, it ensures that you can interpret voice sounds well and you can connect socially with others. This is vital for humans and all other mammals. We survive by making social connections and working together. In a stressful situation, your nervous system calms down when you connect with someone you trust; who makes eye contact and talks to you in a calm voice. This process also takes place via the vagus nerve.

Relaxation and Activation

The role that the vagus nerve plays in your body is therefore very important. It is related to the ability to recover run to a relaxed state. Not because the active state of your autonomic nervous system is not good. You need both. The active state of your nervous system ensures that you can react quickly when danger threatens, that you can focus on a task and that you can practice sports and games. You only have a problem if you stay in an active state for too long, causing the vagus nerve to function less well. Returning to the relaxed state in which you recover is becoming increasingly difficult. The result is that many functions in the body are disrupted. However, if your vagus nerve is strong and functioning well, you will not only experience less stress and relax more easily. You can also connect with others more easily, are more open to other people's views and important physical processes (such as your digestion) run smoothly.

9 tips & tricks from Suze to Strengthen your Vagus Nerve and keep it Healthy

1. Breathing A deep breath into your abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve. Combine deep abdominal breathing with lengthening your exhalation. Start slowly and make sure you don't get stuffy. For example, you can inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 6 and build this up to a count of 4 to 8, or a count of 5 to 10.

2. Gargling and Humming The vagus nerve is connected to your throat and your voice.

By gargling vigorously with saline solution in the morning and evening, activate

you vagus nerve and immediately disinfect your throat. In addition, humming is a simple and effective way to activate the vagus nerve. You can hum along while listening to music. Or as a breathing exercise, inhale normally and exhale humming, making the exhale longer than the inhale.

3. Take a cold shower End your shower with a few minutes of cold water. It is important that you keep breathing in and out deeply. This way you stay relaxed and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

4. Eat slowly Your digestion starts in your mouth. By eating slowly, you give the vagus nerve the chance to send signals to the stomach and intestines so that food can be digested optimally. In addition, your brain will receive the signal to be saturated in time.

5. Dietary guidelines Eat as much sugar-free as possible (except for the natural sugars in fruit), lactose-free, soy-free and gluten-free, and avoid coffee and alcohol if possible. Even if you do not have an allergy or intolerance, it is smart to leave these foods at least temporarily, especially with complaints such as fatigue, chronic inflammation, digestive problems and hormonal imbalance.

6. Supplements for the vagus nerve To begin with, eat as varied, natural and colorful as possible. In addition, probiotics and prebiotics, Q10, Omega-3 fatty acids and collagen support the vagus nerve. B12 is difficult for many people to get enough from food, which is why this supplement is also a good idea. 7. Go for a walk Sunlight and the grounding effect of walking both stimulate the vagus nerve.

8. Connect Social connection is extremely important for the health of your vagus nerve. For example, combine your daily physical activity with a friend or take a yoga class together.

9. Cuddle with your pet, or that of the neighbor. All mammals have a vagus nerve and therefore regulate themselves through connection with others. Cuddling, making eye contact and talking lovingly to an animal therefore has a calming effect. Not only for you, but also for them.

A Failing Break

Because the autonomic nervous system controls all vital functions, you can imagine that 'living' in a sympathetic state (action mode) overwhelms your entire body. This state is only focused on short-term self-preservation. Have you been in this state for too long? Then at some point you will be through your reserves for the future. Your vagus nerve tries to regulate this for you. But if your foot keeps pressing the accelerator of your sympathetic nervous system and your vagus nerve keeps braking at the same time, this brake will definitely burn out at some point. The vagus nerve loses its toning and no longer functions optimally. This has consequences for your mental health, immune system, digestion and your endocrine system. In addition, it disrupts the delicate balance of all these systems together. The result? A range of vague complaints. They may seem unrelated, but in reality they all benefit from supporting your vagus nerve.

A Strong Vagus Nerve

The advantage of seeing the vagus nerve as a pivot in the web is that you don't have to fight every symptom separately. You are directly at the source of many complaints. Because just as systems in your body fall over like a row of dominoes with a poorly functioning vagus nerve, so they also stand upright one by one when recovery takes place. They are all related to each other. For example, your digestive system influences your hormone balance. Your endocrine system influences your mood and sleep rhythm. And your sleep rhythm in turn affects your immune system. In addition, all these components are also in direct relation to each other; they make each other healthy or unhealthy. With a stronger vagus nerve as a basis, you are therefore more resilient and healthier. This is the right starting point from which you can start supporting other systems in your body with nutrition and, if necessary, supplements. Your body can now actually absorb this and use it to its advantage.

A Social Nerve

Because the vagus nerve influences your tone of voice and mimicry and helps you to interpret other people's facial expression and intonation, it is also referred to as the 'social nerve'. In a relaxed (parasympathetic) state, this not only allows us to connect socially and feel compassion. We are also more easily able to put the common interest first. This not only contributes to your own health, but also to that of our society. However, when you are in a parasympathetic but frozen (dissociative) or sympathetic state, this is a lot more difficult. Social interaction, having confidence in the other and experiencing compassion for another is difficult then. You are cut off from the rest of the world and mainly concerned with survival.

The World as a Reflection

If many people in society regularly dissociate (state in which you are less aware of yourself and the world around you), this has consequences for the collective attitude in our society. A healthy vagus nerve therefore not only affects your well-being, but also that of the people around you. You can therefore see society as a reflection of the connection you have with your body. After all, our society does not function very differently from our bodies: we either create a domino effect that collectively ensures greater well-being, or the reverse. The choice is yours, mine and us.”

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