The parasympathetic nervous (PNS) calms things down. This includes both body functions, organs, and emotions. The Vagus nerve is a part of the PNS, and activation of the Vagus nerve is essential to overall well-being. Ice baths have been shown to stimulate the Vagus nerve, and we will tell you why and how in this article.
Anatomy of the Nervous System
To fully understand the parasympathetic nervous system, it is important to understand the nervous system as a whole and where the PNS is, specifically. The nervous system controls everything that your body does and feels. The nervous system is made up of two distinct parts: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system.
The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord.
The peripheral nervous system involves all nerves going to and from the brain and spinal cord and the rest of the body and acts as a communication line between the peripheral and central nervous systems.
Peripheral Nervous System: Somatic and Autonomic Nervous Systems
The peripheral nervous system (peripheral meaning ‘further away from midline‘) is further broken down into the somatic and autonomic nervous systems.
The Somatic Nervous System
The somatic nervous system acts as the communication between nerve fibers that send signals of sensation from the skin to the spinal cord. The somatic nervous system also mediates the voluntary motor responses from the periphery of the body, such as the movement of our arms and legs when walking.
The Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are responsible for the involuntary actions of organs and other bodily functions. This includes emotions. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the well-known stress response of ‘fight or flight.‘ It’s actually ‘fight, flight or freeze,’ meaning you just panic. This third word, ‘freeze,’ should be more commonly stated so that people understand that panicking and the inability to move is a normal stress response as well.
It’s the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that mitigates this stress response, and you can activate the PNS with an ice bath. Now that we know the path to the parasympathetic nervous system, let’s dive deeper.
Parasympathetic Nervous System and Vagus Nerve Stimulation through Ice Baths
The Vagus nerve encompasses up to 75% of the parasympathetic nervous system. The Vagus nerve functions as the main communication between your brain and gut. Stimulation of the Vagus nerve provides a feeling of calm and is being studied as a way to treat depression and anxiety.
Ice Baths Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Coldwater immersion has been shown to activate the Vagus nerve. This happens by introducing a stress response to the body where it works to return the core body temperature to normal. Your body does this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system by way of the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve sends messages to your brain that it is in distress, and in response, the signal to release the hormone norepinephrine is sent. Norepinephrine is a feel-good hormone.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: Another Way to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
The crux of diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is that upon inhale, your belly goes outward, and upon exhale, your belly goes inward. This is why when teaching diaphragmatic breathing, your instructor will usually tell you to place one hand on the chest and the other on the belly: so that you can visualize the movement of the diaphragm.
When your abdomen goes outward, this allows for your main muscle of respiration, the diaphragm, to lower and the lungs to fully inflate. Then on exhalation, the opposite occurs – your belly goes inward, raising the diaphragm muscle to allow for complete emptying of the lungs.
You can play with diaphragmatic breathing by varying the length of time you hold each part of the breath. Using equal parts of each cycle of breath, such as breathing for four seconds on the inhale, holding for four seconds, four seconds to exhale, and holding the breath out for four seconds before inhaling again, is called square, or box, breathing.
Here is another popular diaphragmatic breathing technique that is used to calm anxiety, called 4-7-8 breathing:
- Exhale completely
- Inhale into your belly for four seconds (belly goes out)
- Hold the breath in for seven seconds
- Exhale (while pulling the navel in and up) for eight seconds
- Repeat this cycle for several minutes
Mindful Breathing After Ice Baths
Mindful breathing allows the diaphragm to function correctly by not using your ribcage to breathe, which can lead to tension. This technique can be done in any position: sitting or lying down.
Also, mindful breathing with a focus on using the diaphragm properly and ice baths both have the effect of stimulating your Vagus nerve for a feeling of calm. When you perform diaphragmatic breathing after your ice bath, you won’t believe the feeling of inner quiet and peace that washes over you afterward.
Ice Barrel is One Step Towards Finding Inner Peace
A product such as Ice Barrel is amazing to have in your home to use on a daily basis. If you are looking for a calmer mental state, utilizing an ice bath along with diaphragmatic breathing for stimulation of the Vagus nerve may be your answer.
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