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The Vagus Nerve: How to Hack Your Nervous System with Bowen Therapy

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Caroline Culleton

Bowen Life

Caroline is a member of The Bowen Association of Australia, The Bowen Therapy Academy of Australia (Bowtech), & the International Institute for Complementary Therapists.
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Health & Wellness
Aug 27, 2021

The Vagus Nerve: How to Hack Your Nervous System with Bowen Therapy

Over the past 18 months the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertainty it continues to generate have seen our levels of anxiety and stress explode. 

Living in this constant extreme state of fight/flight/freeze places tremendous demands on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing and pushes our coping mechanisms to the max. And while we push to manage our day to day, unseen and quietly, our bodies can tip out of balance or homeostasis. Once imbalanced, it can go on to present symptoms including severe pain, emotional stress, extreme fatigue, autoimmune issues and/or high inflammation.

So how can we recognise our stress and anxiety and take action BEFORE it causes these indicators to arise?

Finding the time to listen to that "gut feeling" when it whispers to us that things are just not right.

Welcome to the vagus nerve - the 10th cranial nerve or cranial nerve X. 

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that originates in the medulla of the brainstem and terminates by dividing into nerve pathways that supply the oesophagus, stomach and the small and large bowel. Its task is to regulate internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as vasomotor activity, and certain reflex actions, such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting. It really has quite a responsibility.

From the Latin meaning wandering, vagus is a suitable descriptor for this very long meandering nerve which has almost a direct line between our brain and our viscera, those deep inward feelings, keeping track of and reacting to what is going on inside the body. In fact, its advantages are immense, supplying sensory, motor and parasympathetic benefits to our overall wellbeing.

10 Interesting Facts About the Vagus Nerve

  1. Innervates the skin and provides visceral sensation to the heart and abdominal viscera
  2. Provides taste sensation to the epiglottis and root of the tongue
  3. Provides motor innervation to the majority of the muscles in the pharynx, soft palate and larynx
  4. Innervates the smooth muscle of the trachea, bronchi and gastrointestinal tract
  5. Helps prevent inflammation
  6. It helps make memories
  7. It helps you breathe 
  8. It's intimately involved with your heart by regulating heart rhythm
  9. It initiates the body's relaxation response
  10. It's the telephone line between the brain and gut

However, as powerful as stimulation of the vagus nerve can be to help reduce inflammation and inhibit it altogether, when its vagal tone is weakened when it is placed under severe duress, it can play a weighty reverse role in generating chronic inflammation and pain. Fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, food sensitivities, brain fog or sense of despondency are some signs that the vagus nerve is in crisis.  It is at this point we need to seek ways to stimulate it again and strengthen the vagal tone.

Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

  • Breathing exercises/diaphragm breathing
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Omega-3 rich diet
  • Singing & chanting
  • Splashing face/neck with cold water
  • Hugging
  • Massage
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Bowen Therapy

Bowen Therapy Can Hack Your Nervous System – Here's How!

As there are somatic and visceral components to the sensory function of the vagus nerve, the gentle rolling Bowen moves communicate through the soft tissue to the fascia — or the connective tissue — beneath, acting in a way that stimulates the body's proprioceptors (nervous system receptors). So rather than forcing the body to make a change under stress, these light signals and intermittent pauses during a treatment trigger the parasympathetic nervous system – the state for rest, relax, digest – requesting the body itself to make the changes to the pain felt within. Simply put, the Bowen technique awakens the tissues and organs through stimulation and then the body begins to heal itself.  

Bioelectric medical research indicates that direct stimulation of the vagus nerve may be beneficial for acute lung injury, arthritis, brain injury, burns, cerebral haemorrhage, colitis, diabetes, haemorrhagic shock, pancreatitis, rheumatoid arthritis and sepsis – many conditions that Bowen Therapy is indicated for and reported to have positive effects on. Vagus nerve stimulation can also relieve migraines and rapidly quench inflammation and is now considered as a novel treatment for depression. Therefore, there is a potential place for Bowen Therapy within the management plan for anxiety, stress and General Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

When we are suffering from chronic inflammation, stress and/or anxiety, we need to source ways that can gently reset, rebalance and overcome the inertia of homeostasis, especially if our current norm is not benefitting us for the long term.  

A single extraordinary event, a short-term change to a recurring habit or a one-off hands-on soft tissue treatment will simply not do the trick.  No matter how much inflammation we help treat or relieve, or tissues we stretch, or parasympathetic nervous system activity we promote, the body will return to the baseline. It's only with repeated exposure that the body might start to adapt, integrating this new information into its idea of "normal." Time has usually taken us to this place of dis-ease, and time will often be needed to help us back onto our feet, which means regular exposure to this stimulus. The body is remarkably adaptable, however, too much stimulus at once can be traumatic and can set us back or keep us static.  

There is a saying that goes "sometimes you need to press pause to let everything sink in," and Tom Bowen understood this and consequently, the healing power of time.  

Throughout a Bowen session, a series of therapeutic pauses take place at which time the therapist leaves the room. These wait times, which can be 2-5 minutes, allow all systems time to complete the neurological feedback loop and respond to new information from the nerve receptors allowing the body to self-correct, heal and restore optimal health. This slow, stock-taking approach allows the parasympathetic nervous system and hypothalamus to activate the fascia receptors and stimulate a response in its own time. 

Your body listens to every input and will faithfully adapt if you give it sufficient reason and time. This is also enhanced by the request that all Bowen therapy sessions are at least a week apart.

Benefits of Bowen Therapy

  • Its light and gentle moves make it so ideal for all ages – from babies to the aged, for sports people to the infirm
  • Stimulate inertia and stimulate sensitive nerve endings altering pain signals 
  • Small movements around joints stimulates the nervous system to restore stability in joint function and enhance range of motion
  • Loosens tense muscles and heals scar tissue
  • Activate lymphatic system helping drainage of toxic materials and reduction of inflammation and swelling
  • Help improve immune system
  • Restores balance to the body both physically and mentally
  • Speeds up the body's healing process and rebuilds its functional integrity
  • Promotes deep relaxation

Simply put, the body will improve its pain response and be receptive to long-term changes when we allow it to relax, enabling the increase of blood flow and decrease in heart rate, which in turn lowers blood pressure, relieves tension and resolves a wide range of conditions such as sciatic pain, neck pain, wrist pain, middle back pain and severe pain in the pelvic region, among others.

Vagus nerve stimulation is so effective not only for uplifting your mood, healing of physical injuries and reinforcing of bodily functions but for our overall health and wellbeing. The vagus nerve has the important job of ending your body's fight/flight response once a stress has passed, so depending on an individual's needs, desired results can occur within 3-4 sessions, but more chronic or severe circumstances may require additional treatments.

Remember, the body will do its own healing when given time and the tools and with the Bowen Therapy principle of "less is more" this gentle, subtle modality is the ideal partner to a calmer, healthier life.

If you would like to find a Bowen therapist near you, jump online to www.bowtech.com and use the "Find a Practitioner" tab.  As we are now in over 35 countries, I am sure you will find one close to you.  

Take care and stay safe in these crazy times, but most importantly, take some time for yourself and remember to listen and take action to what your body is telling you.  

"Our bodies communicate to us clearly and specifically, if we are willing to listen to them." - Shakti Gawain

FAQs About the Benefits of Bowen Therapy

What can you not do after Bowen Therapy?

At the end of your therapy session, listen to the reminders of your Bowen therapist before getting off the massage table to avoid disrupting your body's healing process. Among these are do not take a bath for at least two days and avoid physical therapy or other forms of manual therapies for at least a week.

Does Bowen technique really work?

Yes, Bowen therapy works for a wide range of health issues, including shoulder pain, back pain, headaches, pelvic pain and knee injuries, to name a few. Anecdotally, several patients have reported relief from pain after receiving a Bowen treatment.

Can Bowen Therapy help frozen shoulder?

Yes, it absolutely can! In a clinical trial of Bowen therapy for frozen shoulder, participants demonstrated increased range of motion of the shoulder joint. Additionally, more than half of the subjects showed a significant improvement in their symptoms.

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