Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vive Las Vagus! (11.20.07)

Vagus, baby. The vagus nerve that is. The vagus nerve is the only nerve that starts at the brain stem and extends down through the abdomen. Vagus is Latin for "wandering." This wandering nerve is responsible for a heckuva lot: tasks like heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and quite a few muscle movements in the mouth, including speech and keeping the larynx open for breathing. It also controls a few skeletal muscles.

So why am I writing about the vagus nerve? It seems that scientists are unwrapping a few mysteries about this baby lately and there is quite a lot of good information out there regarding it's role in controlling the aging process (or actually how controlling it can help control aging).

Ever see those wild guys who walk across burning coals? Or Tibetan monks who generate enough body heat, on command, to dry a moist blanket on their shoulders in frigid temperatures? They aren't magicians and there is nothing supernatural going on: they have learned, somehow through meditation, to control their vagus nerve. The idea is, according to Michael Roizen, MD is this: "if you can regulate your vagus nerve, you can block some of the bad stuff that you're feeling, whether it is caused by stress, infection, or sun-hot coals. Those fire walkers, for instance, figured out a way of meditating to change how the vagus and other nerves interpret the world around them to bock not just the pain but also the blisters and other bad stuff that would happen if we mere mortals attempted the same thing."

The suggestion isn't that we begin trying this to perform super-human feats. The idea is that we learn to meditate properly in order to calm the things that hurt our immune system - like high-level inflammation and immunity challenges. We're all under so much stress today and it's wreaking havoc on our immune systems. Learned to somehow quiet our responses should strengthen our battle-weary bodies so that hopefully we can live long, enjoyable lives. (The idea is not to live exceedingly long in a broken-down body, but in a body that is fit to serve).

(I also find this interesting because my 19 yo daughter has vasovagal syncope with a component of AV block. After failing tilt tests miserably, she narrowly missed the installation of a pacemaker due to her amazing 16 minute feat on the treadmill stress-test after her heart had stopped on the tilt table. She spent a year on vasoconstrictors. Now, she's on a high protein, high sodium diet).

Vagus nerve stimulation is also a promising new treatment for depression. A device called a pulse generator is surgically implanted in the upper left side of the chest. Electrical signals travel from the pulse generator, through the lead wire and to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve delivers those signals to the brain. But precisely how stimulation of the vagus nerve may improve depression remains unknown.

Similar treatment is also being experimented with to control epileptic seizures.

So what can we do? Meditation and deep breathing seem to be the beginning. Deep breathing tells your body that you are not in a state of alarm. That's why it's a good thing when you are alarmed to stop and take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down.

Here's an easy breathing exercise:

Sit cross-legged on the floor. Close the right nostril with the right thumb and inhale very, very slowly through the left nostril. Then with the little and ring fingers of the right hands close the left nostril. Retain breath as long as you can. Then exhale very slowly after removing the thumb. This stage constitutes one process.

Again, inhale through the right nostril, retain the breath and exhale through the left nostril. This ends the process. One can do 20 in the morning and 20 in the evening.

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