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Stress, The Immune System & The Vagus Nerve

Stress, The Immune System & The Vagus Nerve

“Although humans rarely die from trauma, if we do not resolve it, our lives can be severely diminished by its effects. Some people have even described this situation as a “living death.” – Peter Levine

Many of us move through the world unconsciously amassing and absorbing stressful and traumatic experiences until we reach a point where our minds and bodies say “enough”. Enough of the body playing both vehicle and victim to unresolved trauma, enough to making the body both the workhorse and storehouse for chronic stress. This realisation often comes once the body begins to manifest these experiences in the physical body, most commonly as issues with the immune system – for example, more frequent infections or the development of autoimmune conditions.

Is unresolved trauma making you sick?   

The stress response itself is housed in the nervous system. The fight or flight component of the nervous system is made up of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline that are produced by the adrenal glands and move quickly through the bloodstream to the extremities to get you moving away from the perceived threat. According to psychotherapist and trauma researcher Dr Peter Levine, when this response is overused or the stress is not properly processed, the response can eventually become one of immobility, or “freeze”.1 The unprocessed stress or trauma becomes locked into the tissues of the body, leading to a mind that is easily triggered and an immune system with lowered defences. 

Accessing the vagus nerve to improve immunity

A truly holistic approach to health acknowledges that all systems of the body are intrinsically connected – though some, like the immune and nervous systems, are more closely connected than others. There are multiple pathways that run between the nervous and immune systems, which tells us that they are interacting at all times. The two main pathways that relay information about the immune system’s status to the central nervous system are identified as the ‘neural’ and ‘non-neural’ pathways.2

The vagus nerve (VN) is a key component of the neural pathway, constantly transmitting signals from the immune system to the brain. Signals from the VN actually control the immune system’s function, as well as the body’s inflammatory responses. The control (or lack thereof) of inflammatory responses has major consequences, leading to a more chronic disease picture, including inflammation-related obesity and insulin resistance/type II diabetes.2 Stimulating the VN has been shown to suppress the rise of inflammation levels in the body via a pathway called the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway or CAP.3

How to stimulate the vagus nerve

There are so many beautiful ways to nurture the nervous system, but let’s look specifically at ways to stimulate the CAP component of the VN to improve immunity and overall wellbeing:

1. Nutritional stimulation – increasing good fats such as omega-3 fatty acids such as grass-fed beef and lamb, wild-caught oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds and hemp oil in the diet stimulates the release of a hormone called cholecystokinin (CKK). CKK helps to dampen the inflammatory response, as well as protecting the digestive system.3

2. Move through it – a 2016 study looked into the positive impacts of yoga to alleviate inflammatory bowel disease (which has a major immune system component). The study found that moving through a yoga sequence for just 90 minutes per week over 12 weeks resulted in participants experiencing a heightened positive mood state compared to the control group.
 

Yoga has been shown to improve overall vagal tone – even during rest. The researchers in this study concluded that yoga practitioners have greater resilience – including stress and immune.4

3. Use your voice – the vibrations caused by singing, chanting, humming and gargling water all help to stimulate the VN – this is because the nerve runs through the back of the throat.5

We have access to the most powerful systems within us to overcome the damage caused by chronic stress and trauma. By connecting with the power of the nervous system and appreciating what it does for us every single day, by toning and nourishing it through food and conscious activities, we can begin to bring all systems back into equilibrium. 
  References:
 

  1. Levine, P.A. (2008)Healing Trauma, a pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body. Colorado, Sounds True, Inc.
  2. Pavlov, V.A. & Tracey, K.J. (2012). The vagus nerve and the inflammatory reflex – Linking immunity and metabolism. Nat Rev Endocrinol, 8(12):743-754.
  3. Bonaz, B., Sinniger, V. & Pellissier, S. (2017). The vagus nerve in the neuro-immune axis: implications in the pathology of the gastrointestinal tract. Immunol.
  4. Tyagi, A., Cohen, M., Reece, J., Telles, S. & Jones, L. (2016). Heart rate variability, flow, mood and mental stress during yoga practices in yoga practitioners, non-yoga practitioners and people with metabolic syndrome. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 41(4):381-393.
  5. Fallis, J. (2017). How to stimulate your vagus nerve for better mental health. Accessed May 2021 from https://sass.uottawa.ca/sites/sass.uottawa.ca/files/how_to_stimulate_your_vagus_nerve_for_better_mental_health_1.pdf