In our anxiety-stricken world, everyone seems to be searching for ways to calm their nervous systems. One of the most common things we’re told to do when anxious, is to take deep breathes so we can slow our heart rate and relax the tenseness in our muscles that usually comes with anxiety. But have you ever thought about what it is in your body that actually allows a simple thing like breathing deeper to tell the rest of your body to relax? It’s the Vagus Nerve, and once you learn more about it, you’ll see just how integral it is to your wellness and healing practices.
The vagus nerve, is a nerve that runs from the base of the brain through the neck and branches out into the rest of the torso, connecting to the heart and almost all of the major organs. It’s job is to regulate breathing, digestion, heart rate, circulation, the muscles and vocal cords…and in doing so, it has immense effects on both physical and mental health. It acts as a way for the brain to communicate with most of the organs, and for those organs to communicate with the brain. The vagus nerve essentially rules the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest & digest), and we can actually work with it to counteract the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”).
When your body identifies a threat, the sympathetic nervous system fires up your heart rate, makes you breath fast and shallow and tells your body to start pumping stress hormones through your bloodstream. But the problem is our bodies can’t really tell the different between actual life-threatening dangers, and everyday stressors like getting a negative email from your boss. Since these little stressors are common daily occurrences for a lot of people, it’s important to know how to activate your parasympathetic system in order to bring your body back to homeostasis (balance). When you’re not using the vagus nerve to activate your rest & digest state, and are essentially constantly living in a state of stress, it can lead to low vagal tone.
It’s important to tone your vagus nerve, because not only will it allow you to find more calm, but low vagal tone can also contribute to multiple disorders, from Alzheimer’s, heart disease and leaky gut, to eating disorders, autism and depression among many other things. When you live in a near constant state of fight or flight, the body essentially only focuses on surviving and therefore has difficulty attending to things like digestion, sleep, mental planning and creativity, socializing, deep sleep and breathing.
But luckily, there are simple and free ways for you to stimulate and tone your vagus nerve daily:
1. Breathwork as we know, is incredibly effective in helping to tone the vagus nerve. When your exhale is longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve sends signals to your brain to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Try setting a timer for 5 minutes and slowly inhaling for 5, then slowly exhaling for 10.
2. Cold immersion. Even though it might feel a little shocking at first, there’s actually studies that show that cold exposure causes our bodies to shift into the parasympathetic mode, which as we know, is modulated by the vagus nerve! An easy way to practice this is just by having a cold shower!
3. Up your fibre intake, because eating and feeling full actually increases vagal tone…and fibre helps you feel full. Make sure you’re in a relaxed state before eating so that your digestive organs work!
4. Sing or hum, because singing is known to have a soothing effect, which again we know has everything to do with the vagus nerve. So definitely keep singing in the shower, car or anywhere your heat desires.
5. Focus on getting more fun, joy and pleasure in your life. Seriously…anything from dancing to laughter and socializing with friends to orgasms. When your happy and having fun, you feel safe and connected…therefore you’re in the parasympathetic state and toning your vagus nerve!
Julia Gibson is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner, functional foods recipe developer, and write currently based in Toronto. She hopes to inspire and empower others by creating nourishing foods, living a sustainable life, promoting holistic healing and sharing thoughtful writing.