The Powerful 3: Vagus Nerve, Parasympathetics and Mental Health

Vagus Nerve

Lets take a closer look at how the vagus nerve and our nervous system interact with our mental health..

In the modern world conditions such as anxiety and depression are becoming more and more common among the population. These mental health challenges are the leading cause of health-related burden globally. The stress placed upon people is different to any other time in human history and our minds and bodies are still trying to catch up to the ever changing environment around us.

So what does Chiropractic have to do with mental health?

First we need to talk about the nervous system. The nervous system is the master control system of the body, it is responsible for sensing the environment around us, interpreting the stimuli and mounting an appropriate response by changing the physiology of the body. In order to do this there are different divisions of the nervous system, one of which is the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is like your body’s accelerator pedal. This is responsible for the fight or flight response which prepares your body to move and react to a stressor or threat. Stimulation of this pathway will cause dilation of blood vessels, dilation of pupils, increase in heart rate, increase in breathing rate, and secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol. All the things your body needs to do in order to fight or run away.

In contrast the parasympathetic nervous system allows for rest and digestion. This is when healing occurs best as your physiology is not being stimulated to fight or run so your body diverts resources to the areas that need it. This area of the nervous system partly operates via the vagus nerve which goes to supply many important structures throughout the body.

Sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve fibres are also associated with different areas of the spine. The sympathetics exit mainly from the thoracic region of the spine (upper/mid back), whereas the parasympathetics are more closely related to the cervical spine (neck). When there is a problem at the top of the neck there is potential for parasympathetic output to be affected and therefore sympathetic output takes over, moving your body into a more stressed state.

When your body is pushed into sympathetic dominance it is not only the body that makes a shift. Brain chemistry will change as more stress hormones are secreted causing your mind to interpret that you are under stress. This can cause a misinterpretation of stimuli that would not normally be stressful. Over time mental symptoms may start to manifest such as fatigue and brainfog, and progress into anxiety and depression. There may be additional external factors that contribute to an individual’s condition, however if the body is already under stress it has less resources to adapt to other stressors.

As Chiropractors we do not treat mental health conditions and if you have any concerns about your mental health then you should always consult a specialist in that area. What we are able to do, is assess physiology to monitor the level of stress the nervous system is under and investigate whether an issue in the spine is contributing to that. When your nervous system is operating correctly everything else works at its best.

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