If you’ve done even a little scrolling through the health and wellness side of TikTok, the term “vagus nerve” (which currently has over 78 million views) might ring a bell. On the other hand, if you’ve managed to avoid the latest social media addiction, you might be thinking “huh?” right about now.
Nerves are one of the most ubiquitous yet forgotten parts of the body, so it’s no surprise — and a sign of our times – that it takes going viral for most of us to be introduced to one of the longest and most important of them. Sometimes referred to as the “information superhighway,” the vagus nerve is like the queen of the nervous system: it carries information to nearly every major system in the body.
But this standout nerve is important beyond just understanding your own Health 101. It turns out, the vagus nerve holds the key to a coveted superpower: de-escalating stress.
Getting Up Close and Personal with the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves which are found in the back of the brain and are tied to the senses. For example, one of the cranial nerves controls eye movements, one enables your sense of smell, and another is associated with taste. The vagus nerve is the overachiever of the bunch, pulling double duty in more ways than one.
“Vagus means ‘wandering’, and in this situation, it refers to [the vagus nerves’] many connections to organs and systems. It connects to the heart, stomach, lungs, major blood vessels, and intestines,” says Dr. Tom Ingegno, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, and owner of Charm City Integrative Health. Instead of running in a straight line between two points like many other nerves do, there are two vagus nerves – one on your left side, the other on the right. These two nerves spread throughout the body like the roots of a plant in the ground.
The many aspects of your health that the vagus nerve is involved in include:
Digestion:The term “gut feeling” actually has biological roots. Information is passed from the brain to the gut and vice versa via the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain axis. Recent research has begun to uncover how interconnected our gut microbiomes and brains really are, which is largely thanks to the work of the vagus nerve.