Great vagal tone = happy, healthy you! Is it too good to be true?
Written by Emma Lane
- Do you want to create better health and balance in your life?
- Improve your digestion?
- Be less anxious?
- Have substantially improved emotional balance?
- Be able to manage your stress effectively?
I hear a resounding YES!!
You can create the above and more by simply working on improving your vagal tone with easy daily beneficial lifestyle choices.
It sounds fantastic and some of you may well be thinking that’s just too good to be true. Hopefully by the end of this article you will see just how important your vagus nerve and its tone is and how easily you can support yourself to create better vagal tone.
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body. There are twelve cranial nerves in total, the vagus nerve is also known as the CN X (cranial nerve 10). It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the stomach, small and large intestines, the kidneys, heart and lungs and it contains both motor and sensory fibers.
The vagus nerve has wide distribution throughout the body as it passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen and because this nerve is so long and has so many branches, it was named the “vagus ‘nerve from the Latin word vagus, meaning vagrant wanderer. It has an important job and that is to help regulate a vast array of bodily functions necessary for maintaining your homeostasis.
The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate. So the vagus nerve is very important and as I mentioned above what is really important is the “tone” of your vagus nerve. The vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve, therefore by increasing your vagal tone it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which means better recovery after stress, which means better digestion, repair of tissues and in general you are much more balanced physically, emotionally and mentally.
Research from 2010, showed a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health, which translates to the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.
Today in general we live busy lives at high speed which unfortunately means we are in an increased sympathetic state (fight or flight) and many individuals don’t even realise that this is a major factor that is contributing to their poor health. As a society we seem to think that always being busy equals success. Unfortunately as yet, very few people have linked that, so generally it also means poor health and often times feeling unhappy. We need to create better balance between our sympathetic (stress) and parasympathetic (relaxed and repair) state ideally spending more time being parasympathetic. This will help create better vagal tone.
Lower (poor) vagal tone is linked to a number of health challenges:
- Digestive problems such as slow transit time or irritable bowel syndrome that causes constipation
- Low stomach acid secretion
- Poor satiety or sense of relaxation while eating
- Poor absorption of B12
- Low or slow bile acid production
- Negative effects on the adrenals
- Difficulty meditating
- AnxietyHigher blood pressure
- Poor glucose control
- Poor heart rate variability and greater risk of heart disease
Don’t worry there are many things you can do to support and improve your vagus nerve and tone
Here are a few suggestions
1. Enjoy singing or chanting – The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Therefore, singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve and this has been shown to increase heart rate variability and vagal tone.
2. Get regular movement and exercise – as it stimulates the vagus nerve, which may explain why exercising creates beneficial brain and mental health effects.
3. Make sure you have good social interactions and social connection – as researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions.
4. Laugh loud and often- laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability and improve mood. Interestingly vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect.
5. Cold exposure – acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. Having a cold shower may not be top of your vagal toning choices but finishing your shower with 60 seconds of cold water blasting is proven to be good for you.
6. Deep slow breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve. Take around 6 breaths over the course of a minute. You should breathe in deeply to your diaphragm, your stomach will expand outward when you do this, and your exhale should be long and slow. This is essential to stimulate the vagus nerve and be in a state of relaxation.
a. A great tool to use is a biofeedback device that assists you in pacing your breathing called Emwave 2 available from the Heartmath Institute.
7. Take up tai chi – tai chi has been shown to increase heart rate variability, and researchers think this means it can enhance vagal modulation.
8. Utilise a decent probiotic – there is a great deal of research emerging that link gut bacteria to improved brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. In one study, mice were given the probiotic Lactobillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety like behavior. The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood.
9. Fasting – research shows that fasting increases heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone.
A good way to get the benefits of fasting is simply by eating your evening meal between 6-7pm, and then not eating anything after that, until the next morning when you eat your breakfast after 7am. That will give you about 12 hours of fasting time.
10. Take up yoga – studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents”, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers have also found that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve.
11. Try acupuncture – research shows that ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, increases vagal activity and vagal tone, and can help treat neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation”.
12. Eat oily fish regularly or take a clean omega 3 fatty acid supplement – researchers have discovered that omega -3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity, as well as reducing heart rate and increasing heart rate variability.
13. Meditate daily – research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself.
Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation.
“OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve.
So as you can see, there are many activities and lifestyle choices you can easily adapt into your day to day life that will increase your vagal tone and therefore support your health on all fronts mentally, emotionally and physically.
Just remember when your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other. Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). A great tool to use is a biofeedback device called Emwave 2 available from the Heartmath Institute.
The majority of the above suggestions won’t take up too much time or cost you a penny however you will receive substantial reward for your time and effort if you decide to support and increase your vagal tone.
Please take a little time to think how you can introduce and implement on a regular basis, your chosen health supporters from the list above.
Enjoy your journey to better health