Are you embarking on your positive birthing journey? Perhaps you’re yearning for a positive birth experience but feel overwhelmed about where to start or how to cultivate the right mindset. Let us introduce you to the power of the vagus nerve.
You might have encountered the term ‘vagus nerve’, but did you know it plays a role in your birthing experience? The vagus nerve, a crucial conduit of the parasympathetic nervous system, silently orchestrates several involuntary functions of your body, like digestion, heart rate, and immune response. It’s like an unseen maestro conducting a symphony within you, connecting your brain, heart, and digestive system to other vital organs such as your larynx (voice box), lungs, liver, kidneys, and uterus.
But wait - what is the parasympathetic nervous system? The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is one of the two major divisions of the autonomic nervous system in your body. Its primary function is to maintain the basic functions of your body, often referred to as the “rest and digest” system. It plays a crucial role in controlling heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, urination, and sweating.
The vagus nerve is crucial in regulating your stress response and emotional state. When you are calm and relaxed, your vagus nerve is activated and stimulates the release of oxytocin, the hormone of love, bonding, and labour. Oxytocin helps you cope with pain, enhances your uterine contractions, and prepares you for breastfeeding and bonding with your baby. On the other hand, when you are stressed or fearful, your vagus nerve is inhibited and triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones of fight or flight. These hormones can slow down or stop your labour progress, increase your perception of pain, and interfere with bonding and breastfeeding.
Therefore, learning how to activate your vagus nerve and promote a positive birth experience can be hugely beneficial. In this blog post, we explore how the jaw, the vocal cords, and some simple exercises can help you stimulate your vagus nerve and enhance your parasympathetic nervous system during pregnancy and birth.
The Jaw-Vagus Connection
One of the ways to activate your vagus nerve is to relax your jaw. The jaw and the vagus nerve are related in several ways, and they both play significant roles during birth and labour.
The vagus nerve (CN X) is a cranial nerve that belongs to the parasympathetic nervous system and innervates some of the muscles of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (voice box). These muscles play crucial roles in swallowing and speaking, helping to move food from the mouth to the esophagus (food pipe) by preventing food from entering the trachea (windpipe). Interestingly, there is a correlation between these areas and the organs of birth. For instance, the vocal cords have been likened to the vulva and pelvic floor, while similarities have been drawn between the larynx and the uterus. These areas bear a striking resemblance to each other, which you will see in one of the cards in our Positive Birth Affirmation Cards.
When you relax your jaw, you also relax these muscles and glands connected to the facial and vagus nerves. This signals to your brain that you are safe and calm, activating your parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating the release of oxytocin. Relaxing your jaw also helps you open up your pelvic floor muscles connected to your jaw muscles by fascia (connective tissue); of course, the pelvic floor is connected to birth, right? So, this alone can help facilitate your baby's descent and birth.
The jaw also has a surprising connection with the pelvis. This connection is explained by the “sphincter law” coined by Ina May Gaskin, a natural childbirth expert. According to this law, if your jaw and throat are relaxed, so will your buttocks and pelvis. Pregnant women are often advised by their midwives, doulas, and pelvic floor physiotherapists to relax their jaws to prepare the pelvis for labour.
It's also been found that the vagus nerve contributes to fetal development. The vagus nerve, which is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), plays a crucial role in many vital processes during fetal, perinatal, and postnatal life.
A study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that the vagus nerve, an integral part of the autonomic nervous system, plays a crucial role in various vital processes during fetal, perinatal, and postnatal life. The study highlighted the vagus nerve’s role in regulating inflammation through the anti-inflammatory cholinergic pathway, which can impact the functioning of different organs. The vagus nerve also contributes to producing hormones involved in bioenergetic metabolism. The study further noted that changes in fetal heart rate and its variability during labour can indicate alterations in the fetus’s resilience during labour and in the development of the autonomic nervous system, specifically the modulation of the vagus nerve.
The Vocal Cord-Vagus Connection
Another way to activate your vagus nerve is to use your vocal cords. The vocal cords are part of the larynx (voice box), innervated by the recurrent laryngeal branch of the vagus nerv³. The vocal cords produce sound by vibrating when air passes through them from the lungs. The sound can be modulated by changing the vocal cords' tension, length, and position.
When you use your vocal cords during labour and birth, you also stimulate your vagus nerve and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Using your vocal cords can help you cope with pain by distracting you from it and releasing endorphins (natural painkillers). It can also help you express your emotions and release tension. Vocalising can also enhance your uterine contractions by increasing blood flow to your uterus. Additionally, vocalising can help you bond with your baby by creating a sound connection they can hear in utero.
Encouraging women to sigh or relax their throat and jaw during labour helps to release pelvic tension, so don't be afraid to moan loudly and engage those vocal cords - the louder, the better we say!
Exercises to Activate Your Vagus Nerve
There are some simple exercises that you can do to activate your vagus nerve and promote a positive birth experience. Here are some examples:
Deep breathing is one of the easiest ways to stimulate your vagus nerve. It helps you calm down, lower your blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and increase oxygen delivery to your tissues. To practice deep breathing, inhale slowly through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for five & a half seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth for five & a half seconds. Repeat this cycle for a few minutes and notice how you feel. Bonus points if you can extend the exhale to boost the carbon dioxide levels you exhale.
*FYI* Carbon dioxide (CO2) is crucial to maintaining health. It is involved in several physiological processes that are vital for our well-being. For instance, CO2 promotes the healing of lung tissues and skin, synthesises glutamine in the brain, and facilitates other chemical reactions. It also helps reduce anxiety, improve endurance for athletes (hello, birthing women), manage symptoms of depression, reduce inflammation, and increase energy.
And here is a fun fact: breathing through the left nostril is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system. So incorporating left-nostril breathing can help expectant mummas to remain calm and relaxed during pregnancy and labour, potentially making the birthing process smoother and more manageable.
Humming is another way to use your vocal cords and activate your vagus nerve. Humming can increase nitric oxide production, which dilates your blood vessels and improves blood flow. It can also increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits anxiety and stress.
To practice humming, inhale deeply through your nose and exhale while making a humming sound. You can hum any tune or sound that you like, or you can hum along with music. Hum for as long as you can and feel the vibration in your chest and throat.
Fun fact - Humming ‘OM’, often associated with yoga and meditation, has been found to stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Chanting ‘OM’ can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s a simple and effective way to influence your nervous system states. And I am sure my baby knows this, which is why she is pretty audible when tired...I think she is stimulating her vagus nerve in prep for sleep (so no ssshhing, it serves a purpose - a mistake I made with my son).
Singing is another form of vocalising that can stimulate your vagus nerve. Singing can improve your mood, boost your immune system, and enhance your social connection. It can also increase oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin levels, and hormones in pleasure, reward, and bonding. To practice singing, choose a song you like and sing along. You can sing out loud or in your head, depending on your preference and situation. Sing with emotion and expression and enjoy the music.
And like above, it also taps into that vagal nerve toning. What a beautiful way to connect with Bub.
Meditation is a practice that involves focusing your attention on a single object, such as your breath, a word, a sound, or an image. Meditation can help you relax, reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and enhance emotional well-being. It can also activate your vagus nerve by increasing its tone (the degree of activation) and variability (the degree of change) in response to stimuli.
To practice meditation, find a comfortable position and close your eyes. Choose an object of focus and bring your attention to it. When you notice your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the object of focus. Do this for at least 10 minutes a day. Why not focus on a Positive Birth Affirmation Card at the same time and use this to guide your meditation? You could even incorporate some of the above techniques for added vagal nerve benefit.
So there you have it: the vagus nerve is a powerful ally for a positive birth experience.
It connects your brain, heart, and digestive system with other organs, such as your larynx (voice box), lungs, liver, kidneys, and uterus. It regulates your stress response and emotional state by stimulating the release of oxytocin, adrenaline, and cortisol. You can activate your vagus nerve by relaxing your jaw, using your vocal cords, and doing simple exercises such as deep breathing, humming, singing, and meditation. Doing so can enhance your parasympathetic nervous system and promote a calm, relaxed, and joyful birth experience.
If you want to learn more about how to prepare for a positive birth experience, we have something for you. Our Best Birth Co Positive Birth Affirmation Cards are a set of 20 cards that contain positive statements that you can read or listen to during pregnancy and labour. These affirmations can help you boost confidence, overcome fear, trust your body, and connect with your baby. They are based on scientific evidence and proven techniques to help you achieve a natural and empowering birth.
You can order our Best Birth Co Positive Birth Affirmation Cards online or find them with selected Birth Workers & retailers. They are beautifully designed and easy to use. Take advantage of this opportunity to prepare for the best birth possible. Order our Best Birth Co Positive Birth Affirmation Cards today!
Thank you for reading, and happy birthing!🌸Sara x