Whatever Happens in Vagus, Stays in Vagus
By Ann Constantino,
There is a nerve in the human body that regulates heart function, influences digestion, informs you when it’s safe to relax, and promotes efficient swallowing and speaking. This longest cranial nerve (originating in the brain) also receives sensory input from these structures as well as others in the throat and the external part of the ear. More and more studies are linking this nerve to overall wellness.
A well-toned vagus demonstrates a very clear connection between mental and physical wellness
Meet your Vagus Nerve. You actually have two of them, one on each side of your body. Studies are equating the tone of this nerve with balanced nervous-system and digestive function. Because studies show that a well-toned vagus nerve not only is a positive influence on specific systems in the body, but also because it turns on the general rest-and-digest response in the nervous system, it is thought be a to be a tangible link between body and mind. A well-toned vagus demonstrates a very clear connection between mental and physical wellness.
All kinds of conditions are associated with poor vagal tone, from irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, and difficulty swallowing to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and adrenal fatigue. The stresses of modern life tend to overstimulate the fight or flight response, suppressing the calming effects of the vagus nerve.
The tone of the vagus nerve can be measured by heart rate variability (HRV), which is the difference between your heart rate as you inhale compared to as you exhale. The heart normally speeds up when we breathe in and slows down when we breathe out. The greater the difference in those rates, the better the vagal tone.
When poor tone is identified, there are numerous ways to improve it, from stimulating structures innervated by the vagus nerve to consciously slowing down your breathing rate. Many people feel better right away, and for others symptoms gradually improve depending on the severity and type of issues.
Here are some ideas to try
Pick a few that fit into your life best and see if you feel better.
- Breathe slowly and deeply. Studies show that a rate of 5 seconds on the inhale and 5 seconds on the exhale stimulate the vagus nerve. Start with about 5 minutes of this practice and extend it as long as you like.
- Exercise. Movement stimulates the vagus nerve, which also stimulates healthy digestive movement. Try not to be a weekend warrior or an all-day sitter who goes to the gym for an hour but otherwise never moves all day.
- Sing, chant, gargle. All of these activities stimulate the structures of the throat innervated by the vagus nerve and improve its tone.
- Get cold. The vagus nerve responds to exposure to cold by down-regulating fight-or-flight and up-regulating rest-and-digest. Roll down the car window for a moment on a wintry drive, splash ice-cold water on your face, or finish your shower with a few seconds of cold water.
- Try to stay on a regular sleep schedule and stay away from screens around bedtime. The blue light of screens tells your body it’s daytime and messes with your circadian rhythm (waking/sleeping cycle). When this rhythm is disturbed, the vagus nerve becomes confused.
- Try adding Omega 3’s, pre- and pro-biotics to your diet to reduce inflammation and stimulate digestion, supporting healthy vagus function. A discussion with your healthcare provider about other supplements that support your vagus nerve might be a good idea.
- Meditate (see our previous piece on how to start a practice). Just two minutes a day can provide a calming backdrop for a deep breathing practice and a mind-body check-in.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture, especially on auricular points (around the ear) has long been shown to stimulate vagus function.
Once your vagus nerve is soothed and toned, you may feel better in many ways. Your next recovery from Vegas may be a lot quicker.
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.