The Vagus Nerve is the Tenth Cranial Nerve, and it interfaces with the parasympathetic nervous system by controlling all of our major organs and digestive system. It is also the longest nerve within the autonomic nervous system, and it holds some of the keys to better health and happiness.
One of the key functions of the Vagus Nerve is to trigger the opposite response to fight, flight and freeze (lowering Cortisol and reducing the impact of Cold Water Shock). It is, therefore, able to move our body to a more comfortable and engaging perspective, free from stress and ready to focus.
We can feel stressed continuously, consumed by negative thoughts in the modern world, which impacts confidence and performance. Most of us are desperate to find a way to quieten the noise, or even better, turn it off. Understanding how to stimulate the Vagus Nerve is a significant step towards quietening your mind and increasing your ability to focus.
Cold water and the immune system
There have been numerous studies on the connection between cold water and enhancing the immune system. Some incredible studies (Science Today) were carried out in conjunction with Wim Hoff (aka The Ice Man). Wim and a team of volunteers, whom he trained, carried out a series of experiments to show that they could control the autonomic nervous system. Until recently, it was believed that control of the autonomic system was impossible as we assumed the body regulated itself.
Masters of meditation and yogis have known that they can control the body’s response to external stimuli, but it was not reviewed in conjunction with science until recently. Wim Hoff changed this approach. The immune system improves as the body learns to respond differently to cold water, which in turn teaches us to lessen our response to uncomfortable situations through simple breathing techniques.
Cold water exposure reduces inflammation
Researchers are also interested in the ability of cold water and breathing to reduce inflammation. We know most modern diseases are born out of some form of inflammation recurring in the body (including autoimmune diseases). Now consider this (remove the science for a second): if something is inflamed/swollen and you place it into cold water, the inflammation reduces. This is one of the most straightforward facts regular cold water swimmers notice. They feel an immediate high after the swim, but their general wellbeing in between dips also seems to improve – both mental and physical.
Higher levels of inflammation are also noted in those suffering from depression and anxiety in the realm of mental health, but it is also seen in those suffering from autoimmune diseases and arthritis. So cold water can improve the immune system over time, but it can also impact acute symptoms quite quickly.
How can cold water and the vagus nerve help me?
Here is the exciting part: we know that repeated exposure to cold water significantly reduces the defensive response from the body.
- The key is to stay in the water long enough to acclimatise, slowly building up your body’s responses.
- Avoid getting to the point where you start to shiver, exit just before this happens.
- Learn to control your breathing, so you don’t hyperventilate. Taking deep breaths and relaxing the body before you enter the water (be that either the shower or the sea) will start to send the signals to your body that you are in a rested state and that what is about to happen is ok. (Please remember to research and prepare in advance, if you have any underlying medical conditions seek medical guidance).
As you repeat your cold water exposures, your body prolongs the need to instigate your fight, flight and freeze response (sympathetic nervous response) and this approach is then brought into your daily life. You will start to notice that your response to normal stresses (running late, no phone signal, or screaming kids) also improves. This is precisely the way meditation works too. You are training your mind and body to learn that all of the stresses you encounter during your day does not need extreme responses. This can reduce anxiety, stress and improve the mood of those struggling with depression. Cold water is also a great leveller. If your mind is racing and you are overwhelmed, submerging in cold water with quickly shut it down, you will only then focus on your breathing and what is happening at that precise moment.