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The Key to Health and Wellness – The Vagus Nerve

woman lying on her back wearing a pink and purple eye pillow to rest

I wanted to give you some great, simple hacks that can help you to feel good. They are all related to the Vagus nerve. If you have never heard about it please read on, as understanding more about this wonderful nerve will help you to understand how you can have more energy, feel happy and positive and be well. 

“Vagus” is Greek for “wanderer”. The Vagus nerve is the largest in the body. It begins in the brainstem and travels down and into the front of the neck via the carotid artery. It then continues into the body, incorporating on its route the cardiovascular, digestive and reproductive systems, and almost all your internal organs (see picture below). The Vagus nerve takes readings from these organs and passes messages back to them from the brain, like a nerve superhighway.

The Vagus Nerve is the ‘central switchboard’ of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS controls all our autonomous functions over which we have no conscious control such as heart rate, blinking, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, and subconscious breathing.

The ANS comprises three main elements:  The Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS),

  1. The ENS is concerned with the function of the intestines and is responsible for what is sometimes termed the ‘rest and digest’ system. It calms the body, bringing down heart and breathing rates, re-diverting bodily resources to the vital organs, and allowing the deeper autonomous systems (such as digestion) to work at full capacity. The Vagus nerve provides the vital communication highway by which these systems operate.
  2. The SNS is responsible for the so-called ‘fight or flight’ reaction, our instinctive response to danger, increasing the heart rate, pumping up the lungs, diverting blood from organs to muscles, and triggering the release of adrenaline, and cortisol.  The SNS, though essential for survival, is not designed to remain active for long periods. Our SNS cannot distinguish between physical and psychological distress, and so modern-day stressful lifestyles frequently leave people in a prolonged and highly damaging state of persistent low grade ‘fight or flight’.
  3.  To combat this and gain a state of physical and psychological health, we must bring the body back to a more natural resting state of ‘rest and digest’. This can be achieved through stimulation of the Vagus nerve. Stimulating the Vagus nerve can ‘wake up’ the PNS. This will then go to work in various beneficial capacities. Stomach acid and digestive enzyme production will be increased, ensuring the proper and sustained absorption of vital nutrients. Blood pressure will be lowered. The immune system will be properly regulated.

The ability to stimulate your Vagus nerve depends greatly upon your vagal tone. The term ‘vagal tone’ refers to the strength, speed, and efficiency of the Vagus nerve response. High vagal tone is associated with more efficient blood glucose regulation, indicating a far lower risk of diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and so on.

Some common symptoms of Vagus Nerve Dysregulation:
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
• Depression
• Anxiety
• Chronic Fatigue
• High or Low Heart Rate
• Difficulty Swallowing
• Insomnia or trouble sleeping
• Delayed gastric emptying
• Heartburn, reflux, gastritis
• Dizziness/Fainting
• B12 Deficiency
• Chronic Inflammation
• Weight regulation issues

So how can you improve your Vagal tone? By stimulating the Vagus nerve! These are some of my favourite suggestions that I practice regularly:

1) Cold exposure: Cold showers or splashing your face with cold water are the easiest way to integrate this into your life. At the end of your shower, lower the temperature for 30 seconds of cold water and aim to do that consistently over time. That will, in turn, decrease your fight or flight or your sympathetic pathways. In the winter, opening the window and getting a blast of cold air on your face also upregulates your PNS.

2) Deep, slow breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing, that is. When we take deep, slow belly breaths, we activate the Vagus nerve to lower fight or flight, and activate our rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system, thus lowering heart rate, blood pressure and feeling of anxiety. On average, we take 10 to 14 breaths per minute – but to stimulate the Vagus nerve, try to take only 6 breaths per minute. Breathe in deeply, allowing your stomach to expand, then breathe out very slowly.

3) Chanting, singing, humming, and gargling: These are great ways to stimulate the Vagus nerve because the muscles of the vocal cords are connected to the Vagus nerve. This is a great way to improve vagal tone and increase heart rate variability, which is a sign of a healthy nervous system.

4) Probiotics: There are two specific strains, lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium, that are causally related to the gut-brain connection as it relates to mood, anxiety, and depression. This is linked to the Vagus nerve as well. It has been shown that by taking probiotics, you can improve the vagal tone and stimulation.

5) Meditation: This is a great way to improve vagal tone, decrease your stress response, and improve your mindfulness awareness over time. Whatever meditation works best for you is the best kind to do. It does not matter what you choose if you make a daily habit of doing at least 2 minutes of meditation every day.

6) Omega-3’s: This comes from your fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, etc. These are great foods that can help with improving vagal tone, overall mental health, and cognitive decline if there is any. Make sure to eat your fatty fish regularly to ensure you’ve got the appropriate amount of omega-3’s.

7) Massage: Make sure you get regular massage, or perform self-massage, to enhance the vagal activity and improve vagal tone. Things like foot reflexology is a great way to stimulate the Vagus nerve.

8) Exercise: Movement is such a powerful way to improve your vagal tone, to be more connected, and to enhance your sense of happiness. Making exercise and activities that you enjoy a big part of your life will help to improve your vagal tone and overall happiness.

9) Laughing: It is such a great way to improve mood and enhance overall well-being. That of course is happening by enhancing the vagal activity and once again improving overall vagal tone. Make sure that despite the current circumstances in the world, you can laugh, and enjoy life as much as possible.

10) Wear a scarf:  The muscles around the neck are attached to the nerve that runs closely alongside the Vagal Nerve as they exit the cranium. Stimulating these muscles with warmth also have the potential to up-regulate the Vagus Nerve/Improve Vagal Tone and send you to the ‘chill zone’. This is a lovely self-soothe method that feels comforting.

11) Wear an eye pillow over your eyes: Wearing a lightly weighted eye pillow activates a reflex by putting pressure on muscles that hold your eyeballs in place which also happen to ‘speak to’ your Vagus Nerve and communicate a signal to activate the relaxation response! You can use rice in a clean sock or purchase a lovely lavender filled eye pillow for extra ahhh feelings.
 There are many ways to stimulate your Vagus nerve. To start, choose 2-3 things that work for you, and make them daily habits by tying them to things you do anyway. When brushing your teeth, gargle before or after.
When boiling the kettle, or whilst in the shower, hum or sing to yourself. Make new habits simple, and you will integrate them with ease.

The beneficial effects of increased vagal nerve function are so far-reaching that it is worthwhile for us to add some of these new habits into our daily lives. Imagine feeling calmer and more centred. Supporting your Vagus nerve is a great place to start.

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