The Vagus Nerve and You
You may be thinking: “What exactly is the vagus nerve and why is it important”? Great question! Generally this is not an aspect of the body that we give much thought to, and yet the vagus nerve is vital for our mental and physical health. It’s the longest nerve in the body and runs from the brain to many organs, including the gut, liver, heart, and lungs. It plays a major role in the gut-brain axis. The vagus nerve is also involved with the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It affects your breathing, digestion, immune system, and heart rate. Clearly, the proper functioning of your vagus nerve is crucial for well-being.
The Importance of High Vagal Tone
Vagal tone indicates the activity of the vagus nerve. The higher the tone, the more quickly your body can relax after a stressful event. You also experience increased positive emotions, better physical and mental health, and less overall stress.
“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” — Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
Interestingly, vagal tone can be passed from mother to child. Researchers found that when a woman experienced anxiety, depression, or anger during pregnancy, their newborn had lower vagal tone as well as low dopamine and serotonin levels.
Low vagal tone is associated with a host of issues, including:
- Mood disorders, including anxiety and depression
- Migraines and other chronic headaches
- Leaky gut, gastrointestinal issues, and inflammatory bowel disease
- Inflammation and higher rate of autoimmune diseases
- ADHD, chronic fatigue, and insomnia
- Memory loss and cognitive dysfunction, including dementia
- Poor glucose regulation
- In contrast, those with higher vagal tone have reduced inflammation, better heart health, robust social bonds, more empathy, and stronger emotion regulation.
You can measure your vagal tone by observing specific biological processes, such as your heart rate, breathing rate, and heart rate variability (HRV). When your HRV is high, so is your vagal tone.
If you discover that you have a low vagal tone, don’t worry. You can stimulate your vagus nerve with a few easy practices to get it back on track.
How to Improve Your Vagal Tone
So how can we increase our vagal tone to reap the health benefits? Many of the following methods are physical practices, but a few nutritional components are important as well. The key is to pick at least one or two and make it a daily habit.
Expose yourself to the cold. When we experience cold temperatures, the vagus nerve is activated and the “fight or flight” stress response of the sympathetic system is reduced. Think: cold showers, going outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing, or dipping your face into icy water.
Deep breathing. One simple way to increase vagal activity is to breathe deeply in through your nose for 4 seconds, then exhale through your nose for 8 seconds. Not only did researchers find that this method increased vagal tone when practiced for as little as two minutes, but it also significantly improved HRV and decision-making.
Humming, singing, and chanting. Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords and muscles in your throat, when you sing, hum, or chant it activates the vagus nerve and improves vagal tone and HRV.
Probiotics. A study in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry discovered that beneficial gut bacteria had a positive effect on anxiety and mood due to the vagus nerve. Apparently, the vagus nerve acts as a communication pathway between gut bacteria and the brain, as shown in this animal model with the probiotic L. rhamnosus.
Omega-3 fatty acids. As it turns out, taking omega-3 fatty acids is not only good for cardiovascular health, but also for increasing HRV and, by association, vagal tone. This study found that when participants were given daily omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for at least three months, their HRV parameters increased.
Extra Support for Stress, Anxiety, and Gut Function
Herbal remedies are a wonderful compliment to these methods as they provide extra support in calming the stress response, lowering anxiety, and improving gut function. Two powerful herbal formulations in my apothecary, an Anxiety & Stress Tincture and a Balanced/Leaky Gut Blend, can help balance the system so the vagus nerve performs properly. Visit the apothecary today to learn more about these beneficial tincture formulations!