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The nervous system, migraine and yoga therapy


Migraine headaches are caused by inflammation of nerve endings, as a result of blood vessels in the brain swelling up. Or so we have always believed. For the longest time, the brain stem was implicated in the occurrence of migraine headaches as the starting point, from which all other symptoms evolved. However, the symptoms themselves proved to be somewhat of a puzzle given that these headaches were accompanied by nausea, muscle pain, and intolerance of light and sound. What is more, a sudden movement or physical exertion of any kind could increase the severity of the pain. All these clues led the scientific community to dig deeper.

The typical symptoms of migraine suggest the involvement of the sympathetic nervous system. Recently, however, researchers have re-discovered and named a whole new nervous system syndicate called the enteric nervous system which sits in the gut and has also been dubbed the second brain. The cranial brain and the abdominal brain are connected in the same way, researchers say, that two computers are connected to each other in a systems network. Consequently, the lower brain can influence the upper brain both through nerve reflexes and the production of neuropeptides. This evident link between the two brains is governed by the vagus nerve, which is also the 10th cranial nerve. This super nerve runs all the way from the medulla oblongata, to the abdomen, through the heart, oesophagus and lungs. This nerve is part of the involuntary nervous system, and ensures that the heart is beating normally and that the digestive system is doing its job. In effect, it directs the body to self-heal. The vagus nerve, in other words, controls the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest and digest”.

Latest research, however, reveals that immune cells and the nervous system communicate and if immunity is to be maintained, then the nervous system is to be looked after, as part of regulating immune function. It became evident thereafter that the nervous system was akin to a computer terminal through which you could deliver commands to stop a problem such as acute inflammation. Simply put, stimulating the nerve or improving vagal tone could potentially treat a host of conditions without medical intervention!

What is vagal tone?

Vagal tone is nothing but the control exercised by the vagus nerve over the heart. According to recent research, vagal tone is an indispensable part of activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone can be measured by tracking heart rate and breathing rate.

This establishes a direct link between stress and illness or the reason why deep breathing, for example, boosts immunity. The higher the vagal tone the more resistance we will develop to stress and its consequences. It also means that the body will recover more quickly from stress-induced sickness and internal systems will function optimally, such as: blood sugar regulations, blood pressure regulations, digestion, and the cardiovascular system. This could mean less stress, reduced episodes of depression, and reduced risk of heart disease.

Yoga: a great way to improve vagal tone and boost immunity

It stands to reason that yoga is vitally important in boosting and maintaining the immune system, if we go by these developments in our scientific understanding of what happens in the body-mind when there is nerve imbalance, and what causes that imbalance in the first place.

Yoga therapy, if applied regularly could strengthen the nervous system and hence the immune system by a long range. Among the practices recommended in yoga for the specific purpose of improving vagal tone are yoga nidra or deep relaxation, pranayama and simple meditations. Ujjayi breathing, or the hissing breath, is one pranayama that can be used effectively to ward off an attack or manage one after it arrives. Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, and anulom vilom, (also alternate nostril breathing, but done psychically rather than through physical manipulation of the nostrils) can offer relief. The idea is to practice these techniques regularly and avoid trigger factors.

A daily dose of yoga nidra could only help because of the deep nature of relaxation that occurs. Yoga nidra also encourages the brain to release hormones that ease pain and induce a sense of relief and relaxation. It stands to reason therefore, that such practices are ideal for pain management and a host of other conditions induced by a flagging nervous system. It may not be as simple as telling your nervous system what to do and having it obey. It may however be a matter of re-programming it, which in itself may be simpler that you imagine.

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