The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves and is considered the longest and most complex.
The name “vagus” actually comes from the Latin term for wandering since the nerve stretches from the brain into organs in the neck, chest and abdomen. Essentially, the vagus nerve connects the brainstem to other parts of the body so that the brain can monitor and receive information about many of the body’s different functions.
There are 4 key functions to the vagus nerve sensory (from throat, heart, lungs and abdomen), special sensory (taste sensation behind the tongue), motor (controls muscles in the neck responsible for speech and swallowing), and parasympathetic (responsible for digestive track, respiration and heart rate).
The nervous system has two different areas: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic side is also known as “fight or flight.” This is the area of your nervous system that increases your alertness and energy and increases your heart rate and breathing. The parasympathetic aka “rest and digest” is the side that allows your body to recover and focus on calmness, relaxation and digestion. The vagus nerve is heavily involved in the parasympathetic system.
The vagus nerve also has several other important functions. The vagus nerve is responsible for that “gut feeling” you get as it delivers information from the gut to the brain. There is more research emerging about the importance this function has, as more about the brain and gut connection is being explored -- here are a few other functions the vagus nerve has:
- Promotes relaxation with deep breathing as it communicates with the diaphragm
- Sending anti-inflammatory signals
- Lowering heart rate and blood pressure
With so many nerves in our bodies it is incredible that just one nerve plays such a vital role in our everyday body functions!