Why is the Vagus Nerve important? If you’ve ever stepped on the middle of a running hose, you can understand how bodily dysfunction works. If you kink or press down on the hose between the spigot and the spout, the water flow coming from out of the hose’s spout is either severely throttled, outright stopped, or sprays erratically. The spigot hasn’t stopped working and the spout isn’t damaged or off, but the pressure in the center wreaks havoc with the regular functioning of an otherwise simple system.

The nervous system works in a similar manner. The brain and the tissue connected by a nerve may work properly, but problems in the pathways can cause issues on either end. 

Chiropractic care is concerned with achieving optimal skeletal alignment to promote clear communication across bodily systems. Upper cervical chiropractic practitioners specialize in realigning the atlas and axis. These are the two most mobile vertebrae in the spinal column and the two closest to the brainstem and spinal cord, the body’s primary communications path with the brain.

Of special interest to upper cervical chiropractors is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the tenth of twelve cranial nerves. These nerves are communication pathways that originate in the brain stem and regulate the unconscious operation of organs. Cranial nerves can impact respiration, digestion, and heart rate. The vagus nerve is the longest autonomic nerve in the body.

A dysfunctional vagus nerve

Clearly, if something were to “step on the hose” of the vagus nerve, a lot could go wrong. Sputtering and erratic flow, in the case of a major nerve, results in underperforming and inappropriately behaving bodily systems. Issues with the vagus nerve can cause inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease.

The vagus nerve transmits autonomic signals to organs and is responsible for signaling non-emergency states in the body; it tells the organs when trouble has passed and shifts them into states of rest and healing. It runs opposite signals for the fight or flight responses, the high-stress levels that some experience on a daily basis. A body that cannot appropriately switch between these states of heightened and relaxed operation is vulnerable to damage.

For example, a car that is frequently pushed to maintain maximum speed is inefficient. Mis-handling a car quickly damages critical systems like the engine, transmission, and cooling, and risks dangerous wear on the tires. In the case of the human body, issues with heart and cardiovascular function, accessible oxygen for muscle and organ function, and an overabundance of cortisol (the “stress” chemical) can all wear down and wear out delicate tissues, the mind, and the immune system. An efficient vagus keeps the body running efficiently, and avoids unnecessary wear and tear, prolonging good health and well-being.

Toning your vagus nerve

A properly functioning vagus nerve is considered “toned”, just as muscles can be toned. In this case, tone implies that a nerve is communicating clearly and well, responding with appropriate signals to stimuli. A general test of vagus nerve function is checking the gag reflex. The larynx automatically rejects foreign objects (unless you’re eating), protecting the airway from blockage. A toned vagus nerve causes a gagging spasm in response to having the tonsils touched.

Since the repercussions of a vagus nerve under pressure or otherwise inhibited are so dire, and in some cases self-perpetuating, this nerve’s ability to communicate clearly and appropriately with the body’s organs is of vital importance. The vagus nerve is adjacent to two of the major pathways of the circulatory system to the brain, resting on one of the most mobile bones in the spinal column (the atlas); it is in an easily disrupted position, vulnerable to inflammation of surrounding tissues, and is susceptible to poor posture or movement mechanics in the spinal column. 

Upper cervical chiropractic could be an important part in maintaining an appropriate posture that protects and enables the vagus nerve to communicate its important signals clearly and appropriately between the brain and organs. The atlas and axis are the only vertebrae in the spine that have an almost direct effect on vagal tone, with the potential to significantly improve overall health.  

Don’t endure a kink in the hose; gentle stabilization of the positioning of the atlas and axis bones of the cervical spine could help to safeguard the entire body’s communications systems against interference and help to ensure better overall health.