What Is the Vagus Nerve Anyway?
- The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve influencing various involuntary body functions such as digestion, mood, breathing and heart rate.
- Chronic stress can have significant effects on sexual health due to its influence on the vagus nerve.
- Dysregulation of the vagus nerve can affect sexual responsiveness and arousal.
Whatever it was that made you feel tense, a few deep breaths might make you feel more relaxed. That feeling of calm created in your body is thanks to the vagus nerve.
Also referred to as the vagal nerves, the vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves of the body's nervous system. They are the longest cranial nerves in the body, in that they start from the brain and travel to the large intestine.
The vagus nerve specifically plays an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system and sends signals through all of the body's major systems. The parasympathetic nervous system controls bodily functions you don't have to think about controlling. For example, digestion, mood, breathing, heart rate and the immune system are all functions that rely on the vagus nerve, according to Cleveland Clinic.
"The vagus nerve impacts one's ability to relax and their sense of well-being," said Lisa Lawless, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Bend, Oregon. "When we are stressed, the vagus nerve attempts to counterbalance the body's stress responses."
In particular, the vagal nerves help the body exit fight-or-flight mode, according to Cleveland Clinic.
The vagus nerve is also responsible for putting our bodies into different states. The polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges, Ph.D., declares that our body can move into three different states depending on the state of the vagal nerves:
- The sympathetic state is the famous flight-or-fight response.
- The ventral vagal is the state where your body feels calm, socially receptive and safe.
- By contrast, the dorsal vagal is the body's most extreme response to a threat. This is when the body feels overwhelmed, numb and dissociated.
Stress and sex
Most people experience being in a stressful state at some point, whether due to a work, family or health issue. It's normal and healthy to feel stress for a few minutes in response to a short-term issue. Problems arise when people find themselves in prolonged periods of stress.
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When your body doesn't have time and rest to recover, this can dysregulate the parasympathetic system, which can lead to issues in our bodies in unexpected ways. For example, stress can have a major impact on our sexual function.
"Stress can impact every system in the body, including our sex drive," said Donna Marino, Psy.D., a psychologist with a practice in Chicago. "When we're suffering from stress, either chronic or acute, our body's sympathetic nervous system is triggered to run at high gear."
It is in this mode that people experience the fight-or-flight response.
"Our adrenaline spikes, stress hormones like cortisol increase, our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes shallow," she added. "While in this state, we're focused on protecting ourselves from a perceived threat. Not exactly the context for getting you in the mood."
How stress can affect sexual health
Stress can impact our sex lives in several ways, according to Martha Tara Lee, D.H.S., an AASECT-certified sex educator and clinical sexologist with Eros Coaching in Singapore, such as:
- Decreased arousal. High levels of stress can make it difficult to feel sexually aroused or interested in sexual activities.
- Difficulty reaching orgasm. Stress can interfere with the ability to reach orgasm or delay orgasm in both men and women. Stress may also make it challenging to fully relax and focus on pleasurable sensations during sexual activity.
- Erectile dysfunction (ED). Stress can contribute to the development or worsening of erectile dysfunction in men. Stress hormones can constrict blood vessels and impair blood flow to the penis, making it difficult to achieve or maintain an erection.
- Muscle tension. Stress can cause muscle tension throughout the body. Increased muscle tension in the pelvic area can lead to pain or discomfort during sexual activity.
- Premature ejaculation (PE). Stress and anxiety can increase the likelihood of premature ejaculation, where a person ejaculates sooner than desired during sexual activity.
- Reduced libido. High levels of stress can lead to a decrease in sexual desire or libido. In particular, stress can lead to fatigue, mental exhaustion and a lack of focus, making it difficult to feel sexually aroused or interested in sexual activities.
- Relationship issues. Chronic stress can strain relationships, leading to decreased intimacy and communication between partners.
- Vaginal dryness. Stress can interfere with natural lubrication in women, leading to vaginal dryness during sexual arousal.
"It's important to note that the impact of stress on sexual function varies from person to person," Lee said. "Additionally, stress-related sexual issues are often temporary and can improve with stress management techniques and lifestyle changes."
The role of the vagus nerve in sexual health
When it comes to sexual health and stress, the role of the vagus nerve should not be underestimated.
"Stress and the nervous system are highly connected to sexual function and pleasure," Lawless said. "The vagus nerve is particularly involved because it regulates the parasympathetic nervous system, significantly impacting sexual functioning."
It helps send sensations from the cervix and vagina to the brain.
"This has been particularly evident in studies with people who have spinal cord injuries. If someone's spine is injured and can't send these feelings, there is evidence that the vagus nerve can step in and send those feelings instead," Lawless said. "However, it might not send such signals properly when something goes wrong with the vagus nerve, and it is dysregulated. This might change how sexually responsive a person feels or how they experience arousal."
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Keeping your vagal nerves healthy
Having a healthy vagus nerve is an important part of having a healthy nervous system.
"The vagus nerve is the part of our parasympathetic nervous system that's also responsible for rest and digestion," Lawless said. "Thus, when it is dysregulated, you will see symptoms that impact those things."
With regard to digestion, you might experience the following:
- Chronic inflammation
- Difficulty swallowing
When it comes to rest, according to Lawless, you may experience:
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular heart rates
Healthy living is one way to keep the vagus nerve in a healthy state. That includes nutritious food, regular exercise and getting enough sleep. Some exercises you can perform to improve emotional regulation and help the vagus nerve maintain the body's calm include meditation, mindfulness, tai chi and yoga.
"When someone has vagus nerve dysregulation, they should consult with a healthcare provider to discuss their symptoms and treatment considerations, which may include vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), changing to a more healthy diet and relaxation techniques," Lawless said.
The bottom line
Understanding more about the vagus nerves allows us to better understand how and why we are feeling a specific way in a certain situation. This can not only help with our understanding of our stress levels but also help with our understanding of our sexual health.