A Pretty Little Thing Called Vagus and How To Keep Her Sweet

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I was talking to a chap yesterday who wanted to know about stress. I mentioned that his Vagus Nerve is the key and started to list a couple of things he could do to help himself, but had the feeling that he wasn’t following along. Upon enquiry, I realised he was thinking that
 only women had a ‘Vagus’. No no no!
The human nervous system (in both men and women!) has one primary function – to ensure the survival of our physical body. The nervous system is composed of the brain, the brainstem, the cranial nerves, the spinal cord, the spinal nerves and the enteric nerves. One of the cranial nerves, the tenth one, ‘wanders’ through the body, from the brainstem into the chest and abdomen to regulate many of the visceral organs. It goes into the muscles of the throat, the lungs, heart, digestive organs and kidneys. It is really long and has so many branches, that it was named the ‘vagus’ nerve, from the Latin word vagus, meaning ‘vagrant, wanderer’.
This vagus nerve helps to keep homeostasis – it regulates a vast array of our bodily functions, and so when we go into a stressed way of being (called sympathetic – but not meaning the more usual meaning of that word – sympathetic activity means fight or flight or freeze), the vagus nerve helps to pull the activity to a resting and digesting state – called parasympathetic activity (rest, repose and digest). It restores the balance.
It is a hugely complicated network, this vagus nerve, as even this wanderer, has two branches. One being involved in the bodily activity (the dorsal vagal) and the other involved in our facial recognition, heart and throat (the ventral vagal) and is the voice, face, heart circuit.
It’s a wiring in all humans!
Stephen Porges has done a tremendous amount of work identifying this amazing nerve with it’s incredible number of fibers, and actions. He has figured out that by consciously activating it, we can make it’s responses stronger and ‘increase the tone’, allowing us to come into a state of calm more quickly and when we want to. Even increasing the window of tolerance before we get into the stressed out system.
So why bother? Because stress is not healthy for us. Stress is good in small doses, but if recovery is not obtained, stress hangs around and gives us……..problems. Our daily life is stressful – we are told so often about stress that we are getting stress! Mobile devices, overwhelm, fatigue, digestive problems, poor sleep and foggy brains, feelings of not good enough, chasing our tails, running to stand still. These all contribute to wearing out our poor hard working body.
However! All is not lost. We can consciously ‘increase the tone’ of our Vagus Nerve. In doing so we increase our window of tolerance. Choose our emotions and put stress at bay. Enable to be at choice in our responses vs reactions to stress. In short, keep it sweet and able to operate easily to keep the balance within our body. It just takes a bit of ‘exercise’.
  1. Balanced Breathing: This has to be the superstar of all. By deeply breathing in a slow and balanced way, the vagus nerve is stimulated. The baroreceptors, or pressure receptors in your neck and heart detect blood pressure and transmit the signal to your brain. This signal then in turn activates the vagus nerve, to help lower blood pressure and heart rate – to keep the This results in a lower sympathetic “fight or flight” response, as well as a higher parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. Slow, full breathing helps to increase the sensitivity of these receptors, increasing vagal activation. The breathing involves your belly rising and falling (which uses the diaphragm), not your shoulders. For regular toning exercise, breathe in for 6 deep breaths and out for 6 full breaths. So that is 5 times a minute. And wow, the benefits in how you respond are immediate. I love this one and in coaching, it is key to producing greater outcomes in the client and greater presence from myself.
  2. Cold Showers: Yikes. When a nice hot shower is all you want to relax, how can a cold blast help? Any acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve stimulation. Studies have shown that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases, which is mediated by the vagus nerve. So have your shower and at the end breathe out while you turn to lever to cold. Stay in the cold water for at least a minute. Notice how you are breathing and breathe steadily.
  3. Singing or Chanting: The next time you sing along to the radio, notice how good it feels. And sing at the top of your lungs. This will make the muscles at the back of your throat work and, yep, the vagus nerve is there too, so gets a work out as well. So you can get a good workout in the car as well. Go on – sing!!  Alternatively you can ‘Om’, making the inbreath the same length as the outward ‘ombreath’.
  4. Give Your Gut A Break: Taking a decent break between eating times gives your vagus an opportunity to tone up. By reducing the calorie intake, the vagus gets to practise it’s parasympathetic activity. Specifically, the vagus responds to a decline in blood glucose and a decrease of mechanical and chemical stimuli from the gut. This increases the vagus impulses from the liver to the brain, which slows the metabolic rate. Intermittent fasting is simply having 12-14 hours off eating which is like eating dinner at 6pm and then nothing until breakfast the next day. Easy! Eat when you are really hungry.
  5. Massage: Possibly one of the most pleasurable activities for vagal nerve stimulation is a pressure massage. (Well I love it anyway!) The carotid sinus, located on your neck can is a good spot to massage as are the feet. And you are really showing yourself that you are taking the time to care for yourself – an added benefit!
There are many more things you can do to keep your pretty little vagal nerve sweet. Laughter, mild exercise, gargling, tai chi, fish oils, acupuncture and probiotics (as mentioned in other articles – I looooove probiotics for health). Even gargling, tensing your stomach muscles and chewing and eating slowly.
Knowledge regarding looking after our nervous system and specifically the vagal nerve is growing due to the amount of scientific evidence being produced. It all points to caring for ourselves doesn’t it? Quality care, food and time, and being present.
The benefits are enormous as we all have emotional experiences which impact our quality of life and also our physiological ageing. So having a vagus nerve that is exercised, toned and cared for means it is able to cope with the responsibilities it has. That is of maintaining order and harmony of your own body, communication between the individual systems of your body and clarity of thought. Allowing and enabling you to respond in a healthy and useful way rather than reacting unhelpfully.
So get singing, breathing deeply and slowly, laughing, slow down your eating and eat when you are only hungry.
Live long and live happy.
Paula Ralph is a life and health coach, having spent years as a pharmacist and now finding other ways to achieve even better health results. www.paularalph.com

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