How to Tone It Up and Get Happy
FACT: in people suffering with anxiety, fatigue, brain fog, food sensitivities, and other gut problems – the vagus nerve is almost always to blame in some way.
These individuals have what is referred to as “low vagal tone”, meaning a lower ability to perform its various functions.
Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain physiological processes such as your breathing rate, heart rate, as well as your heart rate variability (HRV).
For example, the bigger the difference between your inhalation heart rate and your exhalation heart rate, the higher your vagal tone.
Higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after a period of stress.
Let’s travel the path of this critical nerve and discover some simple, natural ways to increase your vagal tone – and get happier and healthier in the process!
What is the vagus nerve?
Vagus means “wanderer,” because it literally wanders to all of our critical organs – like a superhighway throughout the body.
It’s also the longest nerve, connecting your brain to the gut (intestines, stomach), liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, reproductive organs, neck, ears, tongue, heart and lungs, among others!
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous (PSN) system, which is referred to as the “rest-and-digest” system – as opposed to the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system.
It’s not the only nerve in this PSN system, but it’s the most important one because it has such wide-ranging effects, and the tone of the vagus nerve is the key to activating it.
Vagus Nerve Function: Underactive vs Overactive
Both an overactive and underactive vagus nerve can contribute to dysfunction and cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms.
For example, considering how critical the vagus nerve is to the gut, when it’s not working well (underactive), it can cause a number of digestive problems including:
- Impaired peristalsis – rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles which pushes food into the small intestine for additional digestion
- Eophageal reflux (GERD) and/or dyspepsia (indigestion or “sour stomach’)
- Ulcerative colitis
- Gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying)
An overactive vagus nerve can result in an abnormally low heart rate (bradycardia), sudden drop in blood pressure, and fainting or vasovagal syncope.
Why stimulate the vagus nerve?
Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone has been shown to help treat a wide variety of gut conditions like the ones mentioned, as well as brain, nerve & mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Mental health issues such as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
- IBS (constipation or diarrhea)
- IBDs (Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Alcohol addiction
- Bulimia nervosa
- Autoimmune diseases
- Poor memory and brain fog
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
* For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve.
Additionally, a Swedish research study indicates a positive connection between vagal nerve stimulation and weight loss.
Here are 10 simple ways to stimulate or “hack” your own vagus nerve:
- Singing, humming, chanting, and gargling – the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, so vibration like humming manually stimulates it; try repeating the sound “Om”
- Yoga & meditation – gratitude meditation promotes feelings of goodwill toward yourself and others
- Cold water – taking a cold shower or just splashing cold water on your face (from your lips to your scalp line), eliciting the “diving reflex”, which is shown to slow your heart rate, increase blood flow to the brain, reduces anger, and relaxes the body.
- Lay on your right side
- Slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing – breathing deep from within your diaphragm, rather than shallowly at the top of your lungs
- Massage – including foot massage & reflexology
- Acupuncture – specific acupuncture points, especially around the ear
- Balancing your gut microbiome – the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. This can be done through probiotics, prebiotics, HCL, digestive enzymes, bitters, and ox bile.
- Laughter and positive social relationships – it is thought that being social and even hugging can help to tone up the vagus nerve
One of the most interesting roles of the vagus nerve is that it essentially reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. This is part of how your gut microbiome can have an affect on your mood, stress levels, and overall inflammation.
Closing thoughts on vagus nerve stimulation
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to you body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing, and resilience to stressful situations.
The implications of such simple and basic practices on your overall health, and on inflammation, in particular, are far-reaching.
If you suffer from any of the conditions related to low vagal tone, it is highly recommended to incorporate these techniques into your life.
Eastern monastics have known for millennia that purposeful breathing exercises and meditation are helpful for our health, but it is so fascinating to learn the mechanism by which they work.
Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo