The vagus nerve also controls several critical cardiac branches that regulate heart rate and rhythm. Any disruption in the functioning of these branches can lead to severe cardiac problems, including arrhythmias and heart failure. Keeping the vagus nerve healthy is key for maintaining heart health.
Going further down into the abdominal region, it has branches to multiple organs, including the esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and intestines. These are essential in regulating digestion, nutrient absorption, and gastrointestinal motility. The vagus nerve interacts with a network of nerves called the enteric nervous system within the digestive tract walls that helps communicate between the brain and the gut.
The ANS has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system gets the body ready for action in stressful situations. The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body relax and recover. These two parts work together to keep the body balanced and respond to changes. The ANS controls the involuntary actions of the body, managing and regulating vital processes that occur automatically without conscious effort.
The ANS works with the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord, to maintain homeostasis and ensure our survival.
Stress response: The ANS plays an important role in the body’s reaction to stress. The sympathetic division initiates the “fight or flight” response. This response readies the body for action by boosting heart rate, releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline, and directing blood flow to vital organs. This response heightens alertness and improves chances of survival when faced with danger.
Heart rate and blood pressure: The ANS helps heart rate and blood pressure maintain their normal levels. In times of stress, the sympathetic division of the ANS increases heart rate and constricts blood vessels. While relaxed, the parasympathetic division of the ANS slows heart rate and promotes blood vessel dilation, encouraging a state of rest.
Digestion: The parasympathetic division of the ANS stimulates various digestive processes. It facilitates the secretion of digestive enzymes, promotes food movement through the gastrointestinal tract via peristalsis, and triggers the release of bile and pancreatic juices. The sympathetic division of the ANS acts as an inhibitory force on these processes. Its main task is to redirect blood flow to different parts of the body during periods of stress, inhibiting the digestion process.
Respiratory function: The ANS regulates the muscles responsible for respiration. This ensures that oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in our bodies is properly facilitated. In times of stress or physical exertion, the sympathetic division is activated and can help increase the rate and depth of our breathing. During periods of relaxation, the parasympathetic division assists in slowing down our breathing.
Body temperature regulation: When faced with stress, the sympathetic division of the ANS is responsible for thermoregulation. It stimulates sweat production to promote heat loss and constricts blood vessels to conserve heat. When at rest, the parasympathetic division assists in regulating body temperature. It does this by adjusting blood flow and facilitating heat dissipation or conservation based on the body’s needs.
Urinary function: Within the ANS, the parasympathetic division plays a role in stimulating bladder contraction and relaxation of the urinary sphincter enabling voluntary urination. On the other hand, the sympathetic division can hinder bladder contraction and encourage urinary constriction. This can result in a temporary delay of urination, especially in stressful situations, or a frequent need to urinate due to tension in the bladder.
The vagus nerve, however, acts as a counterbalance to the fight or flight response. It activates the parasympathetic branch of the ANS, which promotes a state of relaxation and restoration. This branch is often referred to as the “rest and digest” system, as it supports functions such as digestion, immune function, and tissue repair.
When stress becomes chronic or excessive, it can lead to a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. This results in prolonged activation of the fight or flight response. This dysregulation can have detrimental effects on our physical and emotional well-being, contributing to conditions such as anxiety, depression, digestive disorders, and chronic pain.
Prolonged periods of stress can hurt the performance of the vagus nerve. When stress turns chronic, this triggers an ongoing release of stress hormones like cortisol. Heightened cortisol levels are meant to be experienced in short bouts. When cortisol is chronically heightened, this dysregulates the ANS.
When stress hormones like cortisol are heightened, you are stuck in a sympathetic state. When stuck in the sympathetic state, the parasympathetic nervous system is inhibited and doesn’t function properly. When you cannot drop into a parasympathetic state regularly, this decreases your vagal tone — resulting in a poor-functioning vagus nerve.
Movement efficiency: Fascia plays a significant role in enabling seamless and coordinated movement. It reduces friction between muscles allowing them to slide and glide over each other smoothly. This process facilitates the transmission of muscular forces during movement and improves efficiency by minimizing energy expenditure.
Force transmission: Fascia facilitates the transmission of forces produced by muscles. It distributes and transfers tension, leading to synchronized movement patterns and optimal force generation.
Protection: Fascia acts as a protective layer. It shields structures like muscles, nerves, and organs from potential harm caused by external impacts or injuries. Fascia’s cushioning effect absorbs and disperses mechanical forces. This diminishes damage to the underlying structures.
Joint stability: Fascia enhances joint stability by extending support to the neighboring muscles and ligaments. By upholding proper alignment and balance, it effectively decreases the chances of injury and helps maintain optimal joint health.
Proprioception: The fascial tissues contain sensory receptors called nociceptors. Nociceptors respond to mechanical forces and are essential for motor control, coordination, and body awareness.
Fluid dynamics: Fascia promotes the movement of vital fluids such as blood, lymphatic, and interstitial fluid. By transporting nutrients, oxygen molecules, and waste products throughout the body, this supportive function allows for optimal tissue health and strengthens the immune system.
Postural integrity: Fascia helps distribute body weight evenly. This helps prevent muscular imbalances and other postural abnormalities leading to mechanical dysfunction.
Research suggests a shared communication network between the fascia and vagus nerve. The fascial tissues contain sensory receptors called nociceptors that respond to mechanical forces such as pressure, stretch, and tension. (1) These receptors send signals to the brain, which then influence the function of the vagus nerve in regulating autonomic functions and maintaining balance in the body. Healthy fascia protects and promotes the health of the vagus nerve, which regulates the ANS, proving the deep connection and reliance fascia and the vagus nerve have on one another.
Chronic stress from both physical and emotional experiences can alter the state of fascia. Being stuck in sympathetic nervous system activation causes the alarm system in your body, much of which is being sent through the vagus nerve, to be triggered continuously. This alarm system, better known as the startle reflex, causes you to tense up and contract forward. Trauma, such as a fall, car accident, whiplash, surgery, daily emotional stressors, and habitual poor posture, has cumulative effects on the body.
Fascial restrictions can exert excessive pressure that can cause pain, headaches, or restriction of motion. These restrictions affect our flexibility and stability and can negatively affect vagus nerve function due to tension and prolonged sympathetic activation. Tension and restriction in the fascia will impact what messages are being communicated to the brain via the vagus nerve. Since the vagus nerve helps regulate the ANS, all involuntary functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion, are compromised when the vagus nerve is not functioning properly.
Research suggests that myofascial release techniques can stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting activation and restoring balance to the ANS. This can help shift the body out of the fight or flight response and into a state of relaxation, reducing the negative effects of chronic stress and promoting overall well-being.
By incorporating myofascial release into a comprehensive approach to stress management, individuals may experience improvements in their physical and emotional health. The release of tension and restrictions within the fascia can help restore the proper function of the vagus nerve, allowing for enhanced regulation of bodily processes and a more balanced stress response.
- Suarez-Rodriguez, V., Fede, C., Pirri, C., Petrelli, L., Loro-Ferrer, J. F., Rodriguez-Ruiz, D., De Caro, R., & Stecco, C. (2022, May 18). Fascial Innervation: A systematic review of the literature. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/23/10/5674