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Posts Tagged ‘heart’

12 November 2012 Meditation Boosts Mood, Eases Pain & Stress

by Michelle Schoffro Cook
November 2, 201
Care2.com

While most people associate meditation with religion, this simple and powerful practiced transcends religious beliefs. Meditation is like a short vacation away from the stresses of everyday life to allow you to center your mind and create a peaceful feeling. And, the research is showing that meditation is great for your health.

In one study published in Health Behavior News Service, scientists found that brain scans and blood tests showed positive effects of meditation. In this study of 48 employees at a biotechnology company, half were trained in meditation and practiced it for one hour a day, six days a week using guided meditations that had been prerecorded. The other half of the participants did not meditate. Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin found that the meditators had greater electrical activity in their brains than the non-meditators. Some of the effects of meditation continued for up to four months after the participants discontinued their meditative practice.

Other research shows improvements in mood, pain threshold, immune system activity, and bronchial and arterial smooth muscle tone. The studies also show a decrease in stress hormones and a reversal in the effects of chronic stress.

Daily practice offers the greatest benefits. Over time it becomes easier. By meditating on a regular basis you can train your mind to relax and release stress.

There are several ways to meditate: breathing meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, and visualization. Choose the type that has the most appeal for you and best fits with your lifestyle and health goals.

Breathing meditation is one of the easiest and most convenient forms of meditation. It can be done anywhere at almost any time, even if you only have several minutes. It requires no special equipment other than your lungs. You can do a breathing meditation while you are waiting in a doctor’s office, grocery store lineup, or at your desk. You can use a regular reminder throughout the day to help you remember to breathe deeply. You could choose to take deep breaths on commercial breaks while watching television or at red lights while you are traveling.

Make time for meditation, even if it is on the bus ride home from work, or while you are sitting in your office, but try to practice it daily. The rewards are far greater than the time and effort it takes to meditate. Soon you will discover that meditation requires little or no effort at all.

Adapted from The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD. Subscribe to my free e-mag World’s Healthiest News to receive monthly health news, tips, recipes and more. Follow me on Twitter @mschoffrocook and Facebook. Copyright Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD.

 

 

 

17 August 2011 45 Benefits of Meditation

by Dane
TheHappySelf.com

 

Ok ok…I’m sure by now you have read about meditation in a number of places.

But is meditation really for you and WHY should you even sit down and shut up?

Let me explain…

Meditation has been used for centuries as a method for relaxation, improving health, and finding mental clarity.  With so many benefits, it’s no wonder that it is used in cultures all over the world.

It’s hard to believe that something that looks so much like sitting around doing nothing is really doing quite a lot for your mind, body, and spirit.  However, it has been found that as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can bring about significant positive changes.

Here are 45 reasons why you need to start meditating …

  1. Allows for healthier flow of oxygen to the brain, which means clearer thinking and better reasoning skills.
  2. Better blood flow to the muscles also helps with physical stamina so you are able to exercise more easily and for longer periods.
  3. The controlled breathing of meditation translates into slower respiration and a decrease in asthma attacks and other breathing issues.
  4. Deepens religious/spiritual devotion and understanding.
  5. Meditation actually relaxes the nervous system, leading to a decrease in multiple stress-induced reactions.
  6. It also lowers your heart rate to a healthier level.
  7. The act of meditating, as well as the meditative exercises themselves, creates a more self-actualized individual.
  8. Doesn’t have negative physical side effects, as do anti-anxiety medications.
  9. Develops emotional maturity as one learns to be calm in the face of drama.
  10. Increases the release of serotonin in the brain, a chemical that improves mood and makes one feel good naturally.
  11. Helps prevent panic attacks in those who suffer from anxiety disorders.
  12. Meditation can be used to improve memory and the ability to learn new things.
  13. Those who meditate are able to see the big picture in order to solve complex problems.
  14. The relaxing effects of meditation lead to less aggressive behavior in individuals.
  15. Helps with the process required to break bad habits and addictions such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
  16. Slows down the racing thoughts that often keep people distracted and awake at night.  In general, those who meditate find that they fall asleep easily.
  17. Helps to normalize blood pressure.
  18. Meditative exercises lead to a higher level of attention and empathy throughout the day.
  19. Offers an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of oneself.
  20. Improves physical and mental reaction time during stressful situations.
  21. Can be a solitary act that requires no outside influence, including money.
  22. Allows an individual to feel a sense of connection to everything and everyone, increasing the personal capacity for love and acceptance.
  23. Through meditation, one is able to develop aspects of his or her character, such as will power and inner strength.
  24. Increases patience in those who practice, as they are less agitated and are even able to engage in meditation at times (like waiting in lines) when others would become annoyed.
  25. Keeps mental faculties sharp and slows down the effects of age on the brain.
  26. Meditators shift brain activity to less stress-prone areas of the brain, decreasing the negative effects of mild stress, depression, and anxiety.
  27. Ability to release negative emotions, rather than allowing them to become one’s focus.
  28. An improvement in physical posture results from holding one’s body appropriately, practicing breathing, and even from an increased sense of self confidence.
  29. The physical benefits of meditation include a decrease in physical pain, especially for chronic pain sufferers.
  30. Brings an opportunity to simplify one’s life, whether it means quieting some inner turmoil or recognizing the need for less material goods.
  31. It is common for those who meditate to discover a significant increase in their energy levels.
  32. Lessens the severity of physical and emotional symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome and other stress factors.
  33. Helps increase the overall amount lost during one’s weight-loss program due to a lowering of cortisol, as well as other factors.
  34. Those who meditate regularly benefit from lower levels of heart disease.
  35. Restores the body to a calm state once the flight or fight reflex has been triggered by an environmental stressor.
  36. Boosts an individual’s immune system to help ward off physical ailments and diseases.
  37. Increases creative output as the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate more effectively and the mind is filled with less clutter and better able to focus in new directions.
  38. Can be used in conjunction with other forms of medicine or therapy to enhance physical and mental outcomes.
  39. Breathing is slowed for more efficient use of oxygen and a decreased waste of energy.
  40. Improves one’s ability to “live in the present” rather than always fretting over future desires or past regrets.
  41. Improves the ability to recognize one’s own thoughts and thought patterns, thereby allowing for self-reflection, acknowledgement, and even change.
  42. Removes obstacles preventing individuals from succeeding, specifically by making them clear to the individual so he or she can make appropriate changes on the path to success.
  43. Strengthens the digestive system for improved overall health and wellness of the body.
  44. Decreases tension within the muscles of the body, resulting not only in better relaxation, but also a lower likelihood of sustaining an injury.
  45. Hand-eye coordination increases within individuals who practice meditation.

In 2003, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School conducted a research study regarding the effects of meditation on highly-stressed employees at a high-tech company.  The resulting brain scans showed that those employees who had been taught to meditate experienced a transfer in their brain activity into the joy and happiness center in the left frontal lobe of the brain.

Studies like this one are getting more and more companies, as well as individuals, thinking about the benefits of meditation and what the practice could mean for them.  From increased productivity and job satisfaction to better relationships among employees, there are some real reasons to consider meditation in the workplace.

Of course, all of these benefits can be extended to everyday life, too, so considering meditation just for job purposes is too narrow of a focus.  Instead, think of how you could gain physically, emotionally, and spiritually by incorporating a few minutes of this deep relaxation into your daily schedule.

Thousands of years’ worth of evidence shows pretty conclusively that those who practice meditation are both happier and healthier overall.  Not bad for something that requires no money, no equipment, and only a few minutes a day.

What are you waiting for?

20 May 2011 Meditate to live longer

Miriam Stoppard, Daily Mirror
19/05/2011

The benefits of meditation are many, as anyone who meditates knows, but claiming it can help you live longer seems a trifle OTT.

However, a good study from a meditation centre in Colorado, US, suggests that the practice can actually add years to your life.

Reported effects of meditation include lowering blood pressure, healing psoriasis, boosting immunity in those who are vaccinated or have cancer, preventing relapse into recurrent depression, plus slowing down the progression of HIV.

What’s more, it seems that meditation can now actually help our cells to survive in the body for longer.

The answer lies in our telomeres – a vital component of every cell. They play a key role in the ageing of cells. Every time a cell divides, they get shorter unless an enzyme called telomerase builds them up again.

People with short telomeres are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression and osteoporosis. They also die younger.

The study shows after a meditation course, people had significantly higher levels of the enzyme present suggesting their telomeres were ­being protected. This changes our view of meditation as simply a state of relaxation. It’s a lifesaver.

Brain studies show that meditation can even trigger physical changes in brain centres involved in learning, memory, emotional regulation, thinking and mood control.

It just so happens that chronic stress will shortern our telomeres causing cell ageing.

The action of meditation is to de-stress us and in doing so, protect our telomeres.

The two kinds of meditation that have been studied are mindfulness meditation, where you become acutely aware of your thoughts and your surroundings, and compassion meditation, where you focus on feelings of love and affection for others.

Both of these types cut down on the stress hormone cortisol. Most of us don’t have time to spend months meditating, but there are mini-meditations we can do like focusing on breathing and being aware of our surroundings several times a day.

While meditation may be effective in reducing stress and in protecting your telomeres, there are other ways if you have no interest in meditation. Exercise can buffer the effects of stress on telomeres and so do stress management programmes. Writing an emotional diary can help patients to delay the progress of HIV.

Psychologists would say that meditation gives you an increased sense of control and purpose in life, and these two things are more important than meditation itself.

Just doing something we enjoy and love – be it meditating, gardening, listening to music or painting – will go a long way to protect us from stress and even help us to live longer.

25 January 2011 On Vagus Nerve, Meditation & Health

By Dr Mark Hyman

 

“The mind has great influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there.” — Moliere

What were Dean Ornish, Mehmet Oz, Dan Brown, the Dalai Lama, and I all doing in Woodstock, New York, last week?

We — along with an assortment of Tibetan monks and doctors, Buddhist scholars, meditation researchers, and prize-winning biomedical scientists in the field of aging, the immune system, stem cells, genetics, brain aging, stress physiology, and more from MIT, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, and UCSF — were all part of a special conference at the Menla Center.

The subject of this conference: Longevity and Tibetan medicine.

If that seems intriguing, it was!

The goal of the conference might sound complex — but it was quite simple.

We were there to investigate the relationship between the science of longevity and wellness and the ancient Indo-Tibetan practices of meditation and training the mind.

The point wasn’t to learn how to treat disease, but to learn what we know about regeneration of the body, protection from illness, and optimization of our function and wellbeing.

The convergence of “post-modern biology” — the new science of “systems” thinking and medicine — and the ancient wisdom and practices of Tibetan medicine and Buddhism was startling.

So what did we talk about?

Well, for one thing, we explored the relationship between the nervous system and health and aging, and the connection between the immune system and health.

As you get older, your immune system produces more inflammatory molecules, and your nervous system turns on the stress response, promoting system breakdown and aging.

That’s not just talk. It’s backed by scientific studies.

For example, Kevin Tracey, the director of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered how the brain controls the immune system through a direct nerve-based connection.

He describes this as the inflammatory reflex (i). Simply put, it is the way the immune system responds to the mind.

Let me explain.

You immune system is controlled by a nerve call the vagus nerve.

But this isn’t just any nerve.

It is the most important nerve coming from the brain and travels to all the major organs.

And you can activate this nerve — through relaxation, meditation, and other ancient practices.

What’s the benefit of that?

Well, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your immune cells, reduce inflammation, and even prevent disease and aging!

It’s true. By creating positive brain states — as meditation masters have done for centuries — you can switch on the vagus nerve and control inflammation.

You can actually control your gene function by this method. Activate the vagus nerve, and you can switch on the genes that help control inflammation.

And, as you know from my books Ultraprevention and UltraMetabolism, inflammation is one of the central factors of disease and aging.

But that’s not all we learned at the conference.

Even more fascinating was the discovery that our bodies can regenerate at any age.

Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)

This is a phenomenal breakthrough.

Here’s why.

It means that we have the power to create new cells and renew our own organs and tissues at any age.

And how are these stem cells controlled?

You guessed it: the vagus nerve.

So relaxation — a state of calm, peace, and stillness — can activate the vagus nerve.

And the vagus nerve, in turn, activates your stem cells to regenerate and renew your tissues and organs.

Scientists have even shown how meditation makes the brain bigger and better.

They’ve mapped out the brain function of “professional meditators” by bringing Tibetan lamas trained in concentration and mental control into the laboratory.

The result? They found higher levels of gamma brain waves and thicker brain cortexes (the areas associated with higher brain function) in meditators. (iii)

Relaxation can have other powerful effects on our biology.

In biology, being a complex system that can adapt to its environment and that is resilient and flexible is critical to health.

The same is true for us.

The more complex and resilient we are, the healthier we are.

Take, for example, our heartbeat.

Its complexity is called heart rate variability (HRV) or beat-to-beat variability. The more complex your HRV, the healthier you are.  The least complex heart rate is the worst — a flat line.

So what does this have to do with relaxation?

The HRV is also controlled by the vagus nerve.

As you can see, turning on the relaxation response and activating that vagus nerve is critical to health.

Let me review what we learned at the conference.

By learning to create positive brain states through deep relaxation or meditation, you can:

* Reduce inflammation
* Help regenerate your organs and cells by activating stem cells
* Increase your heart rate variability
* Thicken your brain (which normally shrinks with aging).
* Boost immune function
* Modulate your nervous system
* Reduce depression and stress
* Enhance performance
* Improve your quality of life

Not bad for just learning to chill out!

Think you’re too stressed out to relax?

Not so fast. We learned that it’s not always outside stressors that are the most important, but our responses to those stressors.

In fact, the Dalai Lama told a story of a Tibetan monk he met who had been in a Chinese gulag, where he was tortured, placed in solitary confinement, and prohibited from practicing his traditions for more than 20 years.

The Dalai Lama asked him what his greatest stress was.

The monk replied that it was his fear that he would lose compassion for his Chinese jailers!

I have met a number of these old monks, who spent the better part of their lives imprisoned and tortured.  What is remarkable is that they didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome — that they emerged intact, peaceful, happy, smiling, and giving back to the world.

Perhaps stress is more about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

On the other hand, the damaging effects of stress are clear.

As we learned at the conference, one of the leading theories of aging is that the protective ends of our DNA (called telomeres) shorten as we age.

Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres, explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our cells, so they die.

Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.

What’s even more remarkable?

In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!

It sounds impossible, but it’s true.

The caregivers who felt the care to be a burden had shorter telomeres, while those who saw their work as an opportunity to be compassionate had no shortening. (iv)

In closing, the Dalai Lama said that the seat of compassion is actually biological and — necessary for survival.

Perhaps the development of compassion and wisdom in coping with unfavorable life conditions is the true key to longevity.

It just may be that working to understand our true nature through the cultivation of our minds and hearts with positive practices like meditation or similar techniques is critical to health and longevity.

The ways we can change our bodies through changing our minds is not longer a theory.

There is a new scientific language to understand how the qualities of the mind control the body through effects on the vagus nerve, immune cells, stem cells, telomeres, DNA, and more.

Remember, your body has all the resources and infinitely adaptable systems to self-regulate, repair, regenerate, and thrive.

You simply have to learn how to work with your body, rather than against it.  Then you can have a healthy, thriving life — and live out your full lifespan, which can be as high as 120+ years!

So here are a few tips to activate your vagus nerve and prevent aging:

1) Learn to meditate.

Find a teacher or check out tapes or CDs  [Practice the Éiriú Eolas Program!]

2) Stretch it out.

Try a yoga class in your area. Yoga can be a great way to release tension and deeply relax.

3) Get some energy.

Learn qi gong, a relaxing ancient system of energy treatment and balancing.

4) Get rubbed the right way.

Massage has been proven to boost immunity and relaxes the body deeply.

5) Make love.

The only way you can do it is if you are not stressed!

6) Get back to nature.

Climb a mountain and watch a sunrise, which will calm your nervous system.

7) Express yourself.

Write in your journal about your inner experience — this has been shown to boost immunity and reduce inflammation.

Now I’d like to hear from you…

Have you noticed how stress affects you?

Have you noticed people looking older after significant life stressors?

Have you noticed how people who seem to have a happy disposition or compassionate attitude toward life don’t seem  to age as quickly as people who are angry and miserable?

Do you have any other suggestions for how to reduce stress, or better yet, how to better your manage your own response to stressful events?

[…]

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

Notes

i Kevin J. Tracey, The inflammatory reflex, Nature 420, 853 – 859 (19 Dec 2002)

ii Krause DS. Plasticity of marrow-derived stem cells. Gene Ther. 2002 Jun;9(11):754-8. Review.

iii Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893-7.

iv Epel ES, Blackburn EH, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Adler NE, Morrow JD, Cawthon RM. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Dec 7;101(49):17312-5. Epub 2004 Dec 1.

17 January 2011 Higher Self-Esteem Leads to Better Health

Australian scientists have concluded that the higher a person’s self-esteem, the better his health, – The Psychological Science wrote.

The experts came to such conclusion after an experiment in which they tried various ways to influence the participants’ self-esteem: either raising it with praise and compliments, or – on the contrary – reducing it with criticism and negative evaluations. For example, the authors told the volunteers that they look good and bad, and then within two weeks of monitoring the volunteers were asked to evaluate their own feelings and wellbeing.

At the same time, the scientists monitored the participants’ tone of the so-called vagus nerve – the human brain that is responsible for the parasympathetic nervous system (which in turn influences the cardiovascular system). If the vagus nerve is in a reduced tone, the parasympathetic NS cannot soothe the heart during stress and depression, which can lead to serious cardiovascular disease.

The studies showed that the higher the participants’ self-esteem, the higher was the tone of their vagus nerve, which enabled people to cope with negative feelings while maintaining a good health.

“High self-esteem helps us to feel safe at a time when we are confronted with social upheaval”, – the researchers noted.

From: http://fi8ness.blogspot.com/2011/01/higher-self-esteem-leads-to-better.html

30 November 2010 New Meditation Research: Putting the ‘Om’ in ‘Chromosome’

By Way Herbert, posted: November 18, 2010in the Huffington Post

The Shambhala Mountain Center sits nestled among the remote lakes and pastures of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where for four decades it has offered instruction and retreat to serious students of meditation and yoga. Starting in February 2007, it became a scientific laboratory as well. The center began hosting the Shamatha Project, one of the most rigorous scientific examinations of meditation’s effects ever undertaken. The Project is now beginning to yield its insights, and from early reports it appears that this ancient practice delivers benefits that go all the way down to the chromosomal level.

Many claims have been made over many years about the effects of meditation on health and well-being, but rarely have these claims been put to the test. Under the direction of Clifford Saron, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Davis, the Shamatha Project enrolled 60 experienced meditators in a three-month study. Half were randomly selected to receive intensive training and practice in meditation over the spring months of 2007, including two group training sessions and five or more hours of individual practice every day. Those who were wait-listed for the actual retreat served as controls — an essential part of the rigorous experimental design that distinguishes the Project from previous meditation studies.

At three points in the three-month study — before, halfway through, and at the end — Saron and his many colleagues took a battery of behavioral and physiological measurements of both the meditators and the controls, who ranged from 21 to 70 years old. They have been crunching the data and analyzing the results, which are now emerging in peer-reviewed journals.

For example: Those who intensely practiced meditation got better at visual perception, and as a result their attention improved. UC Davis psychological scientist Katherine Maclean (now at Johns Hopkins) had all the volunteers perform a difficult visual discrimination task on a computer screen — watching a parade of identical lines go by and spotting the slightly shorter lines that appeared occasionally. This 30-minute task is not only visually demanding; it’s incredibly boring as well. But as reported recently in the journal Psychological Science, the meditators’ increased visual acuity also freed up their limited cognitive firepower for vigilance; and their sharpened attention led to improved performance on the task. This improvement lasted for five months after the retreat was over.

That may not be all that surprising, since focus and attention are what meditation is all about. Less expected is the recent finding that intense meditation may also have anti-aging effects. Tonya Jacobs, a scientist at UC Davis’s Center for Mind and Brain, has just reported (on-line in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology) that meditators show improved psychological well-being, and that these improvements lead to biochemical changes associated with resistance to aging at the cellular level. Specifically, an analysis of meditators’ white blood cells showed a 30 percent increase in an enzyme called telomerase, a chemical essential to the long-term health of the body’s chromosomes and cells.

The scientists emphasize that meditation does not lead directly to cellular health and longevity. Instead, the practice appears to give people an increased sense of meaning and purpose in life, which in turn leads to an increased sense of control over their lives and to less negative emotion. This cascade of emotional and psychological changes is what regulates the levels of telomerase, the anti-aging enzyme.

Positivity appears to be the link between meditative practice and a variety of health benefits. In a study scheduled for publication in the journal Emotion, UC Davis psychological scientist Baljinder Sahdra is reporting that meditation leads to a decrease in impulsive reactions — another health improvement linked to psychological positivity. Impulsivity has been tied to an array of health problems, including addictions and other risky behavior.

It’s well known that stress — and distress — lead to poor health, including a decline of telomerase and its healing properties. What hasn’t been known — and what these studies are beginning to document — is the exact order of psychological and physiological events in this chain and, what’s more, that this chain of events can be reversed.

19 November 2010 New understanding of vagus nerve’s role in regulating inflammation

 NewsMedical

 

inflammation_chart

It used to be dogma that the brain was shut away from the actions of the immune system, shielded from the outside forces of nature.

But that’s not how it is at all. In fact, thanks to the scientific detective work of Kevin Tracey, MD, it turns out that the brain talks directly to the immune system, sending commands that control the body’s inflammatory response to infection and autoimmune diseases.

Understanding the intimate relationship is leading to a novel way to treat diseases triggered by a dangerous inflammatory response.

Dr. Tracey, director and chief executive of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, will be giving the 2007 Stetten Lecture on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. His talk – Physiology and Immunology of the Cholinergic Anti-inflammatory Pathway – will highlight the discoveries made in his laboratory and the clinical trials underway to test the theory that stimulation of the vagus nerve could block a rogue inflammatory response and treat a number of diseases, including life-threatening sepsis.

With this new understanding of the vagus nerve’s role in regulating inflammation, scientists believe that they can tap into the body’s natural healing defenses and calm the sepsis storm before it wipes out its victims. Each year, 750,000 people in the United States develop severe sepsis, and 215,000 will die no matter how hard doctors fight to save them. Sepsis is triggered by the body’s own overpowering immune response to a systemic infection, and hospitals are the battlegrounds for these potentially lethal conditions.

The vagus nerve is located in the brainstem and snakes down from the brain to the heart and on through to the abdomen. Dr. Tracey and others are now studying ways of altering the brain’s response or targeting the immune system itself as a way to control diseases.

Dr. Tracey is a neurosurgeon who came into research through the back door of the operating room. More than two decades ago, he was treating a young girl whose body had been accidentally scorched by boiling water and she was fighting for her life to overcome sepsis. She didn’t make it. Dr. Tracey headed into the laboratory to figure out why the body makes its own cells that can do fatal damage. Dr. Tracey discovered that the vagus nerve speaks directly to the immune system through a neurochemical called acetylcholine. And stimulating the vagus nerve sent commands to the immune system to stop pumping out toxic inflammatory markers. “This was so surprising to us,” said Dr. Tracey, who immediately saw the potential to use vagus stimulation as a way to shut off abnormal immune system responses. He calls this network “the inflammatory reflex.”

Research is now underway to see whether tweaking the brain’s acetylcholine system could be a natural way to control the inflammatory response. Inflammation is key to many diseases – from autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis to Alzheimer’s, where scientists have identified a strong inflammatory component.

Dr. Tracey has presented his work to the Dalai Lama, who has shown a great interest in the neurosciences and the mind-body connection. He has also written a book called Fatal Sequence, about the double-edge sword of the immune system.

19 November 2010 Vagus Nerve and Compassion

From Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner (pages 228-230):

[The vagus nerve] resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat. The vagus nerve … originates in the top of the spinal cord and then winds its way through the body…, connecting up to facial muscle tissue, muscles that are involved in vocalization, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys and liver, and the digestive organs. In a series of controversial papers, physiological psychologist Steve Porges has made the case that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion, the body’s caretaking organ.

…Porges notes that the vagus nerve innervates the muscle groups of communicative systems involved in caretaking – the facial musculature and vocal apparatus. In our research, for example, we have found that people systematically sigh – little quarter-second, breathy expressions of concern and understanding – when listening to another person describe an experience of suffering. The sigh is a primordial exhalation, calming the sigher’s flight/flight physiology, and a trigger of comfort and trust, our study found, in the speaker. When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulating the muscles of the throat, mouth, face, and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.

Second, the vagus nerve is the primary brake on our heart rate. Without activation of the vagus nerve, your heart would fire on average at about 115 beats per minute, instead of the more typical 72 beats per minute. The vagus nerve helps slow the heart rate down. When we are angry or fearful, our heart races, literally jumping five to ten beats per minute, distributing blood to various muscle groups, preparing the body for fight or flight. The vagus nerve does the opposite, reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace, enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.

Third, the vagus nerve is directly connected to rich networks of oxytocin receptors, those neuropeptides intimately involved in the experience of trust and love. As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumably it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust, and devotion throughout the brain and body, and ultimately, to other people.

Finally, the vagus nerve is unique to mammals. Reptilian autonomic nervous systems share the oldest portion of the vagus nerve with us, what is known as the dorsal vagal complex, responsible for immobilization behavior: for example, the shock response when physically traumatized; more speculatively, shame-related behavior when socially humiliated. Reptiles’ autonomic nervous systems also include the sympathetic region of the autonomic nervous system involved in flight/flight behavior. But as caretaking began to define a new class of species – mammals – a region of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, emerged evolutionarily to help support this new category of behavior.


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