Pranayama and the Vagus Nerve


What is Pranayama?

Pranayama means yogic breathing techniques where you increase oxygen intake. Pranayama combines poorak, kumbhak and rachek, which means inhalation, exhalation and retention. By regularly practicing pranayama, oxygen and energy are distributed throughout the body, calming the mind and increasing longevity. Prana refers to one’s life force.

Pranayama for Digestion

Yoga helps to reduce the activity of our sympathetic nervous system also known as our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. When we are under a great deal of stress and our body shifts into fight or flight and our digestive system takes a hit. We may become more bloated or distended, produce more gas or suffer from constipation. Just as yoga can turn down our sympathetic nervous system so can breathing.

Pranayama and the Gut-Brain Connection

Yogic breathing has been shown to improve an underactive parasympathetic nervous system (also known as rest and digest system) as well as stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects all the organs of the body with the brain, the gut-brain connection. The vagus nerve is particularly important for digestion as it stimulates the enteric nervous system that then prompts the intestinal muscles to move and churn the food we ingest. The enteric nervous system is the guts brain, containing between 50-100 nerve cells. It also contains most of our immune system, accounting for more immune cells than are present in our blood and bone marrow.

If our vagus nerve is impaired, due to lack of stimulation from the brainstem it can lead to poor digestion, constipation, distention, and excessive gas. We can see this in individuals who have illnesses that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Their digestion is impaired and slowly they lose their ability to control their bladder and bowels. An increase in poor immune health, as well as mental health, is also apparent when the gut-brain connection is vulnerable.

Pranayama or yogic breathing is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve and increase the digestive fire. Studies have shown that doing specific pranayama daily has reduced anxiety, depression and improved focus, digestion and overall energy. Below are a few examples of pranayama techniques that can be used to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve digestion.


Kapalbhati

Kapalbhati is very beneficial for GERD as it controls GERD symptoms in patients with hiatus hernia. Kapalabhati is known as the breath of fire. It is a warming and energizing breath that aids in cleansing the body through the creation of heat and energy through movement.

How to do it

In a seated position, with the back straight and extended exhale freely and completely. Inhale gently through your nose and then quickly exhale with vigour through your nose whilst you bring your navel towards the spine. Repeat again, do 10 rounds of breathing and over time gradually increase the rounds you do.

When to do it

Kapalbhati kriya is great to do in the morning on an empty stomach or before a meal.


Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika pranayama increases circulation in the and produces inner heat at a physical level. It aids in the removal of toxins, reduces inflammation as well as the buildup of phlegm, improves digestive wellness and metabolism.

How to do it

In a seated position, with the back straight and extended take in a deep breath and then immediately breathe out. This can be done slowly at first with time building up the speed of breathing in and out. During inhalation, the abdomen moves out and during exhalation, it moves in. Do a round of 10-15 breaths. As you continue to practice you can increase the amount of breath in a round. Do 2-3 rounds of bhastrika.

When to do it

It is best to practice this pranayama in the morning on an empty stomach. This breathing technique should not be performed by pregnant women, individuals who experience hypertension, heart disease or serious gastrointestinal issues.

Nauli

Nauli is a breathing technique that is thought to cleanse the organs of the abdominal region. It massages the organs such as the kidneys, liver, bladder pancreas and gallbladder. It encourages weak gastric fire, aids those with issues of constipation. It can aid in clearing out waste from the small and large intestine which can eliminate distension and gas.

How to do it

This is a more advanced breathing technique and it may take you a few months of practice. Start in a standing position with your knees slightly bent. Place your hands on your thighs with fingers pointing towards your abdomen. Relax your chin down, exhale completely and empty your lungs. Hold your breath with sealed lips. Gently round your back and pull the naval towards the spine while holding the breath out. Hold for 10-30 seconds, as long as it is comfortable. Before inhaling, relax the facial and throat muscles, calmly and with control, breathe in through the nose.

For side nauli, assume the same position as before. Breath out completely and hold your breath. This time contract the muscles of the abdomen and move them to one side. Afterwards, move the abdominal muscles to the opposite side, start slowly and then speed up. The rolling of the muscles is known as nuali.

When to do it

This pranayama is best done in the morning on an empty stomach before consuming any food or liquid. This breathing technique should not be performed by pregnant women, individuals who experience hypertension, heart disease or serious gastrointestinal issues.


All Pranayama techniques, not only the above, have a direct and beneficial effect on the digestive system and parasympathetic nervous system. The three above are particularly stimulating for digestion as per the vagus nerve. Other wonderfully beneficial pranayama techniques include nadishodhana, sheetali, sheetkari, dirgha, bhramari, viloma and chandra/surya bheda. Watch for my next blog post: How Pranayama Balances the Nervous System.