Why vagal tone is so important
August 17, 2016
The vagus nerve has been a hot topic for the past year. I’m not sure what caused this to become a topic of conversation, but I’m glad more people are becoming aware of it and how much it matters to our overall physical function.
The vagus nerve is one of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves within the sensory-somatic nervous system. The 10th cranial nerves called vagus are the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system originating at the brainstem in the medulla oblongata. It travels down the sides of your neck, across the chest, and down through the abdomen.
This nerve is the sensory network that tells the brain what’s going on in our organs, most specially the digestive tract (stomach and intestines), lungs and heart, spleen, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in everything from talking to eye contact to facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices. It is made of thousands upon thousands of fibers, operating far below the level of our conscious mind. It plays a vital role of sustaining overall wellness. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed “fight-or-flight” adrenaline response to danger.
So how can you improve its function?
Some of us have stronger vagus activity, which means our bodies can relax faster after a stress. The stronger your vagus response or vagal tone is the stronger your body is at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation and if low vagal tone persists, regulation of inflammation can become less effective. Vagal tone can be determined by using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate—one element we know we can improve with MELT. Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone.
As part of the immune system, inflammation has a useful role helping the body to heal after an injury, for example, but it can damage organs and blood vessels if it persists when it is not needed. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation.
With clients that come in with inflammation and chronic pain the first thing I test is their vagal tone, and if it’s low I immediately work with them to restore its function.
Here are few tricks I’ve learned over the years along with a few key sequences from the MELT Method that directly help with restoring ideal vagal tone:
- Take a cold shower in the morning. I know, I know cold showers in the morning sound like torture to some, but this is an ancient Chinese remedy that does help stimulate the vagus nerve. Traditionally what’s called a “hot and cold plunge” where you sit in hot water then in a cold plunge for 5 minutes each or even putting your face in ice water for 20 seconds and repeating it 5-10 times also are very effective in vagal stimulation.
- Sing, laugh, hug. This seems a little “kumbaya” to some, but as the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine and a hug makes you feel better. Besides, laughter increases beta-endorphins, nitric oxide and benefits the vascular system overall so hang out with people who fill you up with love, laughter, and kindness. All 3 also release oxytocin and serotonin, which are stress relieving hormones vital to our well-being. And besides, who doesn’t need a hug? On the basis of current knowledge of neuroanatomy and research with cardiac vagal tone, I would propose the vagal circuit is linked to emotion regulation. The vagal circuit of emotion regulation incorporates lateral brain function with the regulation of the peripheral autonomic nervous system in the expression of emotion. Simply put, people can become asocial if the vagus nerve is impaired or in disarray.
- Take care of your gut. The enteric nervous system—or what is described sometimes as the gut’s nervous system—connects to the brain through the vagus nerve. There is increasing evidence pointing to an effect of the gut microbiota on the brain. Animals supplemented with L. rhamnosus experienced various positive changes in GABA receptors that were mediated by the vagus nerve. Eat right, juice, and take probiotics to keep your gut flora stable and healthy. Also, intermittent fasting or reducing calories has been shown to increase the high-frequency heart rate variability, which is a marker of vagal tone.
- Alter heart rate variability. This is so simple to do. In the MELT Method there is something I call the Rebalance Sequence. It is a 10-minute sequence that directly increases HR variability and allows a person to control a key element of the autonomic nervous system through a clever diaphragmatic technique I call the 3-D Breath Breakdown. By slowing down and focusing on the direction of diaphragmatic motion, you alter the way the brainstem signals the diaphragm to contract as it does some 25,000 times a day when you breathe and don’t think about it. Then adding another technique called the 3-D Breath assists the deep core reflex to go into action, also stimulating vagal tone.
- Reduce jaw tension. The jaw is related to both the trigeminal and vagus nerve, and misalignment of the jaw can cause low vagal tone. If you have had braces, lots of mouth work, or have unstable hips and poor foot strength and integrity you are at risk for low vagal tone. Who knew? Well, in my years of developing Hands-Off Bodywork I’ve created simple at-home techniques for my clients with low vagal tone and jaw issues that work fast. One is what we call the quickie facelift. I shared it on the Rachael Ray Show as a way to lift the skin around the eyes and mouth, but I originally developed this technique for my clients with jaw pain. You can do it anywhere and it works fast. By stimulating the tissue where the vagus nerve branches out behind the ears you can decrease the compression the tissue often has at the base of the skull. This is often a culprit to vagal issues missed in treatment. Sometimes the nerve is actually fine yet the tissue surrounding it causes imbalances in its connection from brain to gut. By releasing the tissues in this area with either this technique or the neck release sequence you can quickly boost the balance and connection the vagus nerve needs to function efficiently. (Check out MELT On Demand for the Quickie Facelift!)
- Decompress your neck. The MELT Neck Release Sequence can easily decrease stress in your body, relieve unnecessary joint compression, and directly influences vagal tone quickly. Releasing neck tension with this simple sequence also helps reduce muscular tension in the upper body where the nerve branches out at the neck space.
- MELT your hands and feet. Now this is super simple. Treat your hands and feet to a MELT treatment as often as every day to simulate the fluid flow throughout the entire connective tissue system as well as the billions of sensory nerve endings found in your hands and feet. The points we compress on the hands and feet all relate to regions of the torso, most specifically our organs. So this is an indirect way to help the autonomic nervous system restore whole-body balance in as little as 10 minutes a day.
The bottom line is the cranial nerves are a significant and profound element of our autonomic neurology and overall health and wellness. Learning to care for this system is essential. Reduce stress, restore stability, and care for your body beyond doing exercises that tone your butt. You will be better for it! If you suffer with fatigue, anxiety, digestive issues, food sensitivities, or you feel depressed, have brain fog, or feel despondent, the vagus nerve is always affected.