The nervous system is the central portal to all body systems, including your bones. The process of bone remodeling cannot take place unless the appropriate signals are sent along the nerves to regulate the process.
As a part of the autonomic nervous system, the vagus nerve is the “head honcho” of involuntary biological processes. It stimulates and sends feedback from the organs in the abdominal cavity, plus it regulates involuntary actions like mood, digestion, stress response, and so forth.
To stimulate the vagus nerve and “set things right” again, you can employ the Valsalva maneuver, which is easily performed anywhere, any time. It’s so effective that it’s used in medical practice as a treatment for depression.
So let’s take a look at this “wandering” nerve, how it affects your health and your bones, why the Valsava maneuver works, and how to perform it.
The Vagus Nerve In A Nutshell
The word “vagus” is derived from the Latin word vagary, meaning “to wander.” This is also where we get words like “vagrant” and “vagabond.” It signifies a meandering pathway that is not anchored in an obvious way, unlike the contained nerves in the spinal cord. But even though this nerve appears to wander, it’s not random in its pathway.
The vagus nerve originates in the brain stem – it’s actually the tenth cranial nerve – and travels up to the eyes and down through the chest and abdominal cavity. It branches off in various places along the way, innervating the pupils, esophagus, lungs, digestive organs, bladder, kidneys, reproductive organs, and much more. It’s the longest cranial nerve in the body, and it’s also one of the most important.
In fact, the vagus nerve is the most vital element of the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, which works in opposition to – and also in conjunction with – the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS.
The PNS is responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body’s various systems. A good way to think of the PNS is as the “rest and digest” nervous system. It decreases heart rate, constricts bronchial tubes, relaxes muscles, and increases the secretion of digestive juices and saliva.
The SNS controls the way the body reacts to danger and acute stress (the automatic “fight or flight” response). It tightens muscles, dilates the bronchial tubes, releases adrenaline, converts glycogen to glucose for fast and quick energy to the muscles, and increases heart rate.
As the major “boss” of the PNS, the vagus nerve calms your body down after a SNS-instigated fight-or-flight response. Once the stressor has passed, the vagus nerve brings the body back to a state of mental and physical balance and calm.
The vagus nerve does all that and a whole lot more.
Seven Ways The Vagus Nerve Affects Your Health And Your Bones
Here are seven of the many ways this wandering nerve is involved in your health.
1. Regulates Heart Rate
The vagus nerve actually controls your heart rate by stimulating the sinoatrial node of the heart to release acetylcholine, a hormone that slows down the heart rate. The relationship between the vagus nerve and the heart is so reliable, that doctors can test the vitality of your vagus nerve (and the variability of your heart rate) by timing and charting the moments between heart beats.
2. It Can Cause Fainting When Over-Stimulated
If you feel light-headed (or actually pass out) when you see blood or observe medical procedures, it’s not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s a phenomenon known as “vagal syncope,” a response to stress that over-stimulates the vagus nerve. As noted in the first point, the vagus nerve is closely connected to your heart, so when it’s over-stimulated, it can cause your heart rate to drop and your blood pressure to drop. The blood flow to your brain is then restricted, causing you to feel faint.
3. Improves Memory
Animal studies show that vagus nerve stimulation improves memory.1 This is likely due to the fact that the vagus nerve releases norepinephrine into the amygdala, the area of the brain that organizes and consolidates memories and emotions.
4. Sends Messages To And From The Brain And The Gut
Phrases like “I have a gut feeling” have been in our language for many years, yet the knowledge that the vagus nerve connects the two is relatively new. Your gut feelings actually have basis in biology. The vagus nerve acts as a sort of message translator between your gut and your brain, using electrical impulses to communicate between the two.
The vast majority of these messages go from the gut (via the ENS, or enteric nervous system in the digestive tract) to your brain; so in essence, your belly really does tell your brain how you’re feeling.
5. Prevents Inflammation
There’s no question that inflammation plays a role in bone health as well as many other health conditions, and in particular, heart disease. Inflammation literally ages your bones via oxidative damage, making them more vulnerable to fracture.
The vagus nerve is always on a reconnaissance mission, gathering information from the organs as to the presence of inflammatory substances like cytokines. It then alerts the brain, which in turn responds by sending out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters. This underscores the fact that inflammation is meant to be temporary; once it’s done its job, such as promoting the healing necessary for an injury, it needs to be “shut off.” The vagus nerve performs this vital action.
6. Keeps You Breathing
By causing the secretion of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the vagus nerve tells your lungs to breathe, over and over. Breathing is important for obvious reasons, but deep breathing is even more so. When you breathe deeply, it not only alkalizes your body, but it also stimulates the vagus nerve itself, producing a sense of calm and reducing bone-damaging stress. So it helps your bones two ways, and also reduces depression and anxiety (more on this later).
7. Helps You To Relax
Did you know that your body has a mechanism in place for relaxation? It makes sense – something must kick in to cause you to calm down from an intense, stressful moment. Acetylcholine is involved once again, as well as the vagus nerve’s stimulation of this neurotransmitter. Acetylcholine signals the vagus nerve to release relaxing, feel-good hormones such as prolactin and oxytocin – to name a few – to the organs where they are needed.
The many branches of the vagus nerve distribute these relaxation chemicals directly to the organs that need them, causing you to feel calmer. Strengthening this vagus response helps you to recover more quickly from stress, which is where the Valsalva maneuver comes in.
What Is The Valsalva Maneuver And How It’s Done
Antonio Valsalva (1666-1723) was an Italian anatomist who spent much of his scientific career studying the ear. He is responsible for the term Eustachian tube, and he also developed the maneuver we’re going to look at today. The original intention of the Valsalva maneuver was to clear debris and infection from inside the ear, but its uses and benefits extend far beyond this to include vagus nerve stimulation. Here’s how it works.
The Valsalva maneuver increases pressure within the chest cavity and expands your abdomen, setting a series of physiological processes into place. As mentioned earlier, the vagus nerve is directly connected to your heart’s rhythm, which is why doctors recommend the Valsalva maneuver to halt an SVT episode. (SVT is supraventricular tachycardia.) Because of this, if you have any heart condition, make sure you ask your doctor before performing this maneuver.
Here’s how to do it:
- Hold your nose so you can’t breathe through it.
- Close your mouth and try to breathe out through your pinched nose.
- Hold this “forced exhalation” for 10 to 15 seconds, and then release.
Breathing against a closed-off airway increases chest cavity pressure, thus forcing the heart to pump more blood for a few seconds. Then the opposite happens – the pressure now has the effect of preventing blood from returning to the heart, so blood vessels constrict, raising blood pressure.
When you resume normal breathing, the pressure drops suddenly, allowing the chest cavity to expand and blood to fill the heart again. Ironically, cardiac output may actually drop even more at this point. Seconds later, your heart and lungs resume normal rhythm and breathing.
This maneuver “tones” the vagus nerve, which can also be accomplished by deep breathing. This is best performed by drawing a slow, deep breath in through your nose, envisioning your abdomen filling with a balloon. Let your ribs expand all around and your belly as well. Breathe in for about seven seconds, hold it for a moment, and then slowly exhale through your nose for 11 seconds. Repeat six to 12 times.
Anxiety And Depression Relief
Remember that the vagus nerve controls the “calm down” aspect of the parasympathetic nervous system? Stimulating it, then, kicks this calm-down response into gear, reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and the cortisol that accompany these conditions. In addition to alkalizing your pH, this is another way that deep breathing is excellent for your bone health.
The bottom line is, stress is acidifying. The Osteoporosis Reversal Program did not overlook this fact, and you’ll find an entire section devoted to relaxation and stress reduction. As you learn how to relax your mind and body, it helps you to reduce your stress and cortisol levels.
The Osteoporosis Reversal Program includes 10 easy behavioral changes you can make that will have a noticeable impact on your sense of well-being and your bone health, as well as specific relaxation techniques you can employ every day to bring a sense of calm.
Stop Worrying About Your Bone Loss
Join thousands of Savers from around the world who have reversed or prevented their bone loss naturally and scientifically with the Osteoporosis Reversal Program.
The Osteoporosis Reversal Program certainly covers all the bases when it comes to bone health!
Till next time,
1 Chen, C. C. and Williams, C.L. “Interactions between epinephrine, ascending vagal fibers, and central noradrenergic systems in modulating memory for emotionally arousing events.” Front Behav Neurosci. 6. 35. (2012). Web. November 1, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384987/
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I recently learned that my bone density decreased while I thought I was doing everything right. Also, my thyroid peroxidase antibodies increased to 243 and my GFR went from 74 to 60 within one year. There was no kidney disease or osteoporosis in my family. How could this happen when I am living a healthy lifestyle? I do not smoke or drink alcohol. I get 30 minutes of cardio exercise 6 days a week, I keep my weight to a BMI around 23, don’t add salt to my food, which is mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and salmon. I rarely eat any kind of highly processed foods other than some hummus, and for a treat, once in a while have an Almond Cranberry Kind Bar. I rarely drink coffee, but when I do I ask for half water and no sugar or creamer. I do not take any pain pills or drugs except Levothyroxine. I do a lot of reading and research as to what is healthy so I can be up to date on what is best for my health. Also, I take an AlgaeCal formula for bones which was recommended highly by my endocrinologist. The only thing I did wrong that I know of was to chew a lot of gum during that period while I was extremely stressed. My husband was Type 2 diabetic and became quite ill with throat cancer, strokes, and heart attacks. I was by his side when he was in chemo and radiation, in the hospital, and was his caregiver when he was at home. This took a great toll on me and then he passed in February of 2021. Also, during that time, I was exposed to Cypermethrin while trying to set off a fogger to kill bugs. Please help me. I am still in mourning while losing the last valuable thing I have fought for, my health. I will soon be 74 years old. My parents lived past 90. What do you think caused my health decline and what can I do?
Thank you for your expertise.
Ty Sooo much. The How, the Why, and often, a Healthy Recipe too. You make it sound easy and I know it’s not, so ty for your time and efforts… which have made my life better.
Thank you Vivian for all your tremendous help and advice, all of which I have followed. I have your ‘Save our bones Programme’ together with the cook book and meal planner, and I love your informative emails and weekend challenges.
Unfortunately I haven’t received any emails from you for several weeks now, and I wonder if you still have my email, which has not changed.
Again many thanks for all that you do for us.
I’m a little unclear. Do you do ‘manoeuvre’ / forced exhalation (ie. holding breath and trying to breath out through pinched nose) just once or more? And do you follow it with slow-count breathing in and out through nose? Or do you alternate these two exercises?
I appreciate your teachings which are “free” very very much,
thank you for your generosity!!!
Thank you so much, Vivian, such terrific and bone-healthy information.
Great summary of vagus nerve! Thank you.
A great issue on the Nerve that controls so much I always enjoy your articles thank you Eleanor
I wanted to thank you so much for keeping us all informed about healthy living and explaining scientific information in a way we can understand. I really appreciate your warnings and updates on what is going on in the world of medications. You help us make our own decisions based on the knowledge you share with us. Personally you have saved me from taking meds I never needed and saved me from their side effects. I’m very grateful.
Thanks for updating us about the Vagus nerve. Will be good to know more about the role of our nervous system in bone-health.
Hi Vivian. – Thanks for your email. I just had an N-telepeptide test done, it showed normal range of calcium loss, yet I have osteoporosis on my Dexa scans . Is it that my minerals and diet intake isn’t enough to strengthen my bones? Not sure what this means.
Your articles are always so interesting and informative.I
save them all. I have a friend who has Paget’s disease.
Would you please give me some information on it ?
I dianostic with ostopenia I Not take any med for det and I like you program tank you l be learning from theth.
Vivian thank you for all the informative and helpful information you give us. And the great exercises and tips are proving so helpful. Thank you.
Thank you Vivian for all your good advice. You are so helpful to me and my husband with breathing problems. I am very appreciative.
That is very interesting so must read it again at leisure, You give us all so much to think about. Thank you so much. Really appreciated.
My normal respiration rate is very slow, x6 per minute. What effect has this on the vagus nerve please and metabolic processes?
I have a vagal nerve stimulator put in my left-hand side of chest adjoining my my vagal nerve for other health problems I have does this help what you have explained?
I have purchased the Save Our Bones original book and the recipe book. I would like to purchase your exercise book and the cleansing book, but don’t want the electronic downloads. Is it possible to get them shipped in book form?
If not, can you at least indicate how many pages each one is, so we know ahead of time how much printing is involved?
I haven’t seen my problem addressed anywhere and would appreciate some help. I have been a “saver” since 2011. My hips increased from osteopenia to normal but my spine keeps getting worse ( -1.2 t score to -1.6 to -1.9).
Why such discrepancy between hip and spine. Any advice ? I am 67 and in excellent health (no meds) except for a trend of bone loss in my spine!
Thank you for this excellent informative (in plain and explained language) ‘The Vargus.
Can a VN breathing exercises avoid the need of a pace maker?
Thank you for your service and enthusiasm for bone health. You inspired me to think critically about the medical profession and this is happened many years ago.