The Link Between Stress, Inflammation, and the Immune SystemThe vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) is the main nerve of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) division of the autonomic nervous system. It is an important route of communication between the brain, cardiovascular system, gut, and immune system. This bi-directional nerve pathway travels all the way from the brainstem down through the chest and into the abdomen, branching off to multiple organs. This wide-reaching pathway gave rise to its name, vagus, which means “wandering” in Latin.
The body is intricately connected, and the vagus nerve plays a key role in coordinating communication. Signals are sent from the brain to the organs of the chest and abdomen, as well as from the gut and organs back to the central nervous system. The vagus nerve helps orchestrate this communication network by signaling the brain to produce neurotransmitters and hormones, coordinating responses, regulating stress reactions, and helping to keep inflammation in check.
For example, the vagus nerve plays a central role in coordinating the parasympathetic relaxation response, helping to slow down breathing and heart rate, promote relaxation, stimulate digestion, and bring about a sense of peace and calm. To help coordinate this relaxation response, the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which seems to be a major brake on inflammation in the body.
Vagal Tone and Why It MattersSince the vagus nerve is a major control center for the body, the health of this nerve is of utmost importance to the health of your brain, immune system, and overall inflammatory state.
Some people have stronger vagus nerve activity than others, allowing their bodies to relax more quickly after stress. The strength of your vagus response is known as vagal tone.
Low vagal tone has been associated with chronic inflammation. Research shows that those with inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, often have decreased heart rate variability, a marker of reduced vagal tone. This reduced vagal tone triggers the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by inflammatory cells and affect other cells) and leads to an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity and stress hormones, contributing to systemic inflammation.
Abdominal Massage as a Natural Anti-InflammatoryFortunately, you can activate this nerve and strengthen your vagal tone through natural techniques to help balance your immune system, calm the body and mind, and reduce inflammation. Research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and tranquilizer since it reduces the production of proinflammatory cytokines and calms the nervous system.
An emerging technique for reducing inflammation and toning the vagus nerve is a type of self-abdominal massage. Moderate pressure massage has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, increase the movements of the digestive system and contents, and improve insulin secretion to help balance blood sugar in pre-term infants (studies on adults have yet to be done). The combination of manual manipulation and stimulation of the vagus nerve can have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits.
How to Perform Abdominal MassageThis abdominal massage technique is easy to do at home in just a few minutes. It is best to perform this practice on an empty stomach, a few hours after eating. Start slowly and see how your body responds.
- Lie down on a comfortable floor mat or on a bed.
- Place your hand below your sternum or breastbone. Make gentle downward stroking movements—moving your hand down toward your abdomen. Repeat this movement for a few minutes, cycling one hand over the other in a backward bike-pedaling–like motion.
- Next, use your fingertips to make small circular motions on your abdomen. Start massaging the sides of your abdomen and slowly work your way inward and downward. Go progressively deeper, using a firm but comfortable amount of pressure. Continue this abdominal massage for several minutes.
- End your practice with a few minutes of a gentle reclined two-knee spinal twist pose (Supta Matsyendrasana). This restorative yoga posture improves digestion and encourages an opening within the fascia and diaphragm to help you deepen your breath and induce an anti-inflammatory relaxation response.
- Lying on your back, exhale as you press your lower back lightly into the floor or bed.
- Breathe here for a few moments as your lower back opens.
- When you are ready, gently contract your abdominal muscles as you inhale and bend your knees toward your chest.
- Exhale and bring your arms out to your side with your palms toward the floor, even with your shoulders.
- On a slow inhale, lift your heels a bit higher than your knees, and then as you exhale slowly lower both legs to the left toward the floor.
- Keep your knees at the level of your hips and your feet and knees stacked together. Rest in this posture for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Continue taking slow, deep breaths as you gently twist from side to side, moving with your breath.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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