Demystifying the vagus nerve – our body’s internet, super-highway, internal safety monitor – Professor Owen Epstein

Deeper research into the functions of the human body never cease to move beyond the realm of fascinating. In an insightful discussion with Professor Owen Epstein, a pioneering professor of gastroenterology based at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London, the gut-brain connection was explored. He explained the significance of the vagus nerve – the internet and superhighway of the human body – keeping us constantly aware of our safety, the same way our external organs (eyes, ears, nose) monitor our external safety. The critical part played by this relatively unknown cranial nerve has gained extensive prominence over the last decade, and this interview leaves no question as to why. – Nadya Swart

Professor Owen Epstein on the vagus nerve

I’ll start off by saying that there are 12 cranial nerves that emerge from the brain that subserve your eyes, your nose, your throat, tongue, ears and the skin of your face. Now, one of them, called the vagus nerve, goes much further than that. It actually is called the vagus nerve because it’s kind of the vagabond nerve. It travels all over the internal organs and branches of the vagus nerve can be found on the heart, the lungs and all the intra-abdominal organs. That means the liver, the gallbladder, the spleen, the kidney and the digestive tract. And so the big question that arises is why is this cranial nerve different from all other cranial nerves. And for generations, nobody has really asked that question in any depth. We’re taught that the vagus nerve has certain functions; it makes your pupils constrict, it helps your stomach make more acid, it makes your gastrointestinal tract move a bit faster. But I mean, that’s about all that medical students are ever taught about the vagus nerve.

On the vagus nerve being the internet of the body

What’s it doing insinuating itself into all these organs? The answer to that, or what appears to be the answer to that, is that in actual fact, the vagus nerve is the internet of the body. If I can be a little bit more expansive on that score: our body is constantly monitoring our state of safety. So we have our ears and our eyes and our touch constantly monitoring the outside world, much of it subconsciously. We’re not consciously aware of everything that’s happening in the environment, but there are millions of bits of information coming from the outside world that tell us whether we’re safe or not. Now, what about inside our body? Well, clearly, we need to know a little bit about our internal organs and the vagus nerve acts as the eyes and ears and nose of the internal organs. We think of it as a conduit which uploads information from all the organs to the brain, not the conscious part of the brain, but the subconscious part of the brain. This is where it’s interpreted, and then it sends messages downstream to provide the organ systems with an appropriate response. There is what we call extraception, which is being aware of your outside environment, and there’s intraception. The big question is what role is played by the vagus nerve  in health, wellbeing, information systems? And I think the easiest way to think of it is as the information superhighway, or the internet, of the body.

On the importance of feeling safe to the proper functioning of the human body

All life forms, every life form you can think of, has one prime objective, and that objective is to survive and to reproduce. Now, to survive and reproduce, you firstly have to be aware of your environment. Obviously, that’s part of the survival instinct. But to reproduce and to be creative, we need to feel safe. You can’t indulge in relationships, in communication with other people, in eating, in enjoying play if you feel that you are threatened. And the process of creativity and of reproduction of the species depends on you being safe. You can’t do that stuff unless you’re safe. So, what the body is primarily concerned with is finding you a safe space. Okay, so how does this all add up? Well, the sensory organs of the eyes, nose, etc., and the internet of the body are constantly accepting information and informing us subconsciously about whether we’re safe or not. And if we are safe, we have a sense of well-being. Not necessarily happy, going with a big smile on my face and jumping for joy, but we feel content and comfortable. And that is the psychological expression of all of this information being interpreted by the lower brain. Now, what happens if we’re unsafe? Well, the first thing that happens is we run for safety. And you’ve heard of fight and flight? So, the sympathetic nervous system, which is loaded, it’s like a catapult, it’s always ready to go, will respond without your thinking. This is fight or flight. 

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