What does the Vagus Nerve have to do with Menopause?

lifestyle stress May 31, 2022

The sensation of feeling stressed comes from our autonomic nervous system. This includes our Sympathetic Nervous System (you might know this as your fight or flight response), the Parasympathetic Nervous System (The rest, digest, and repair response), and the Enteric Nervous System (this is also called the second brain as it can act independently from the brain. It controls the functions of the digestive system and produces large amounts of our feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine). 

 

The Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for preparing your body for action, for a fight or to run away. It is a FEAR-based reaction in response to the rising levels of our stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.

 

An acute stress response causes:

  • your eyes to dilate, for better long-distance vision
  • increases heart rate and blood pressure
  • opens up your airways, to receive more oxygen
  • diverts blood flow to skeletal muscles
  • shuts down non-essential systems like digestion and reproduction
  • increases sweating

This all increases your chances of survival if you have to fight or escape from a dangerous animal but if you are a stressed-out woman with no dangerous animal insight, these elevated hormones, especially if they are chronically elevated can also cause:

  • reduced ovarian function (anovulation and irregular cycles)
  • can increase core body temperate - contributing to the development of hot flushes and night sweats
  • it lowers immune function, making you more prone to infections
  • may cause blood sugar imbalances and predispose you to type 2 Diabetes
  • these blood sugar imbalances also cause cravings and weight gain, as a general rule this kind of weight likes to be deposited in the midriff section
  • may cause thyroid dysfunction, by suppressing the production of TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) and also suppressing the conversion of T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) into active T3. Instead converting T4 into another inactive thyroid hormone called rT3.
  • it reduces your liver's ability to detoxify 
  • accelerates the structural breakdown of the collagen matrix and skeletal bones, leaving women more susceptible to developing osteopenia and osteoporosis
  • reduces the production of secretions leading to feeling dry especially dry mouth, dry eyes,
  • it can even be the cause of lowered libido levels, as elevated cortisol levels reduce testosterone levels by blocking its precursor DHEA
  • It can cause brain fog and cognitive issues
  • even mood swings, anxiety, and depression are linked with elevated stress hormones
  • It also interferes with your sleep-wake cycles as cortisol along with melatonin creates your circadian rhythm. Too much cortisol blocks melatonin and therefore blocks sleep. 

 

To recap your  Sympathetic Nervous System accelerates the stress response and may be linked with a more intense menopausal transition, your parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, applies the brakes and allows you to rest, and recover. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a response to feeling SAFE.

 

When you are in Parasympathetic mode your

  • pupils constrict, for better close up vision
  • the production of your secretions increases such as saliva and teardrops
  • reduces heart rate
  • stimulates digestion
  • stimulates detoxification
  • helps to balance blood sugar levels
  • stimulates sexual arousal and lubrication
  • calms the mind and lifts your mood

 

The Vagus Nerve (also called the vagal nerves) play a huge role in the Parasympthateic Response. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It is nicknamed “the wandering nerve” as it weaves from the brain stem to the pelvic floor* without being connected to the spinal cord.

 

If you want to turn off the stress response and turn on the rest and relax response the best way to do this is by turning on the parasympathetic response by stimulating the vagus nerve.

 

Thankfully there are so many ways to do this and best of all most of them are FREE lifestyle habits you can add to your daily routine.

Some of my favourites include

  • Breathwork 
  • Meditation, especially Chanting or Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  • Humming, Gargling
  • Massage, Acupuncture, Chiropractic
  • Laughing, Socialising
  • Exercise, Stretching, Shaking

And the list goes on. The key to vagus stimulation is regularity, yes you might feel better after a chilled-out massage or yoga session but when you make these changes part of your regular life it helps to stop the stress response before it even gets started.

 

If you would like to learn about Vagus Nerve stimulation consider joining the Menopause Makeover Program.

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