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Acupuncture and the Vagus Nerve

by Dr. Davina, L.Ac., DAOM.

The body is regulated and kept in balance by the central nervous system.

Though some of it is under our conscious control, most of the important functions, including breathing and digestion, are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. This system operates independently from our conscious awareness and we can only influence indirectly.

There are two complementary parts of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

The sympathetic nervous system marshals our defenses and gives us more energy in response to threat, and is commonly known as the “fight or flight” system.

The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, activates functions that lead to relaxation, activating digestion, immunity and healthing, and is often called the “rest and digest” system.

From the lens of Chinese medicine, these two systems represent a balance of Yin and Yang.

The sympathetic “fight or flight” is very Yang, it activates our adrenaline, increases blood flow to the limbs at the expense of the core, and activates our metabolism. It prepares us to face the outside world.

The parasympathetic “rest and digest” on the other hand is very Yin in nature. It brings the circulation from the limbs back into the core, promotes digestion, and gears the body towards rest, recovery, and repair. It allows us to retreat to the inner world.

Ideally, both systems should be in balance.

However, in our modern, outward facing world, many people often have too much focus on the outer world leading to feeling overworked and overwhelmed. This leads to chronic over activation of the ‘fight or flight’ response, also known as ‘sympathetic dominance’.

Symptoms of sympathetic dominance include:

  • ‘Tired and Wired’: feeling exhausted throughout the day, but also restless at night.
  • Feeling anxious, fidgety, or unable to relax.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Headaches, migraines.
  • Chronic tension in the neck and shoulders.
  • Digestive upset such as IBS, food allergies, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.
  • Poor immunity, easily catch colds.
  • Restless sleep, wake up feeling tired.
  • Infertility and reproductive health issues (you can’t get pregnant while running from a tiger)

Fortunately, in Chinese medicine, and especially in Kiiko style acupuncture, we can treat sympathetic dominance by activating the Vagus nerve.

The Vagus Nerve

The Vagus nerve is a cranial nerve, meaning it emerges directly from the brain, rather than the spinal cord.

Its name literally means “wanderer” as it weaves through the chest cavity in such a complex way that its full structure is difficult to define. But it innervates nearly every organ in our chest and abdomen, including the heart, lungs, digestive tract, and reproductive organs.

Nearly 80% of the parasympathetic system is just the vagus nerve.  Therefore, by stimulating it with acupuncture we can increase the “rest and digest” functions, while turning down the “fight or flight” system.

The Vagus and the SCMThe Vagus and the SCM

While the vagus is usually very deeply embedded in the organs of the trunk, it is relatively accessible in its passage through the neck, where it passes under a muscle known as the Sternocleidomastoid muscle, or SCM for short.

Acupuncture and acupressure that relieve tension in the SCM therefore  improve Vagal tone, which then helps promote rest and relaxation.

In Kiiko style acupuncture, we check three regions of the SCM, allowing us to fully release the muscles of the neck, and activate the vagus nerve. I usually do these points last, because patients start to fall asleep once they’re needled!

Come try Kiiko style acupuncture with Dr. Davina and experience a deeper state of relaxation!

Many Lives Chinese Medicine
Acupuncturist Redwood City
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