Why Stimulating The Vagus Nerve Is Good For Health
The vagus nerve, also called the wandering nerve, is the 10th cranial nerve originating at the base of the brain and culminating in the gut. It is a pair of nerves that runs down both sides of the neck, circling around the digestive tract, liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and pancreas. Keep reading to find out why stimulating the vagus nerve is good for health.
Vagal tone denotes the health of the vagal nerve. Having good vagal tone is critical for the body to function optimally, and is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and relaxation. The more toned the nerve is, the more efficiently the body can get into a relaxed state after experiencing stress. Vagal tone can be tracked using HRV, or heart rate variability.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a branch of the nervous system responsible for regulating key involuntary functions in the body, such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, body temperature, metabolism, and glandular function. These functions operate automatically without you having to consciously think about them.
There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system; the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Each branch has opposing effects on particular organs. For instance, the parasympathetic branch reduces blood pressure, whereas the sympathetic branch increases it. Each subdivision works in tandem with the other to achieve homeostasis.
The sympathetic portion of the nervous system is responsible for preparing the body for stress. Hence its name, the fight or flight system. In response to stress, blood vessels constrict, pupils dilate, sweating and heart rate increase, glucose production ramps up, stress hormones, such as epinephrine are secreted, and airways relax. The sympathetic response was intended for brief instances of stress, not for prolonged periods of time, as we’re seeing today, with people getting stuck in this stress response.
Conversely, the parasympathetic branch is the rest and digest, or conserve and restore, portion of the nervous system. It stimulates digestion, promotes rest and relaxation, slows heart beat, and stimulates the release of bile. Both branches are vital, the problem lies in the fact that the vast majority of us are in sympathetic mode more than we should be. This is why insomnia and digestive problems are rampant. The goal is to activate the parasympathetic branch, with all its health-promoting benefits.
Problems Associated With Low Vagal Tone
Here are some conditions that can result form low vagal tone:
- Chronic fatigue
- Mental impairment
- Imbalanced blood sugar
- Anxiety and depression
- GI problems
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart disease and stroke
- Food sensitivities
- Chronic inflammation
Benefits of Stimulating The Vagus Nerve
- Mitigates depression
- Decreases inflammation
- Alleviates headaches
- Reduces seizures
- Boosts immune function
- Promotes healthy digestion
- Improves sleep and mood
- Prevents chronic disease
- Lowers risk of cardiovascular disease
- Reduces stroke and diabetes risk
Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability is one of the most significant measures of cardiovascular health, yet you don’t hear it referred to that often. The new Apple watch measures heart rate variability (HRV). When I heard this, my first thought was, “It’s about time!” HRV measures the time variation between heart beats, and is a reflection of the health of the autonomic nervous system. Heart rate variability is not to be confused with heart rate, which is measured by taking your pulse, and counting the number of times your heart beats per minute.
HRV is measured by accessing the electrical activity of your heart. An ECG can record this information. Or you can track your HRV at home using a special chest monitor that connects to an iPhone app. The EmWave personal stress reliever is a handy little tool that can also measure heart rhythms. Heart rate variability is such a vital measure of health because it reflects the variability of the autonomic nervous system.
If you’ve ever tracked your heart rate, you know it doesn’t stay the same, but changes based on certain factors, such as your emotions and activity levels. HRV is the difference between your lowest and fastest heart rate. The goal is to have a high HRV, which means your heart rate can efficiently adjust to whatever it is you’re doing. Essentially, heart rate variability reflects how well your cardiovascular system is performing.
Vagal Tone And Cancer
Tumor development and progression is affected by three mechanisms; inflammation, oxidative stress, and sympathetic overdrive. Good vagal tone inhibits all three. In the presence of inflammation, the vagus nerve regulates immune function by releasing anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters. The higher the vagal tone, the slower the cancer progression. Interestingly, this effect was even more pronounced in advanced, metastatic cancers.
There is a direct correlation between high vagal tone and lower levels of inflammation. This anti-inflammatory effect, called inflammatory reflex, is a primary mechanism in slowing disease progression. Cancer patients with higher HRV had decreased levels of inflammation, along with better survival rates.
The inflammatory response is a primary player in the development of all chronic disease, and is initiated in response to stress. This is why finding ways to reduce the sympathetic stress response, and inducing the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is so health-promoting.
[Read More: 5 Ways To Make Self Care A Priority]
5 Ways Of Stimulating The Vagus Nerve
Both psychological and physical well-being, along with nurturing social connections, are linked to high vagal tone. Low vagal tone, on the other hand, correlates with inflammation, mood disorders, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Here are 5 ways of increasing vagal tone that you can easily incorporate into your life:
1. Calorie Restriction and Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting and calorie restriction are hot topics in terms of anti-aging, weight loss, mental clarity, and reducing inflammation. What you may not know is the effect they have on vagal tone. Fasting and calorie restriction improves vagal tone by activating the vagus nerve.
This improvement is caused in part by a reduction in glucose levels, correlating to an elevation of vagus impulses. Reducing calories or implementing a time-restricted eating schedule enables the body to rest, which engages the parasympathetic nervous system. Certain nutrients like probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve vagal tone.
2. Singing and Laughing
Singing and laughter make you feel good. Happy emotions improve vagal tone, which could be why you feel so great after a long, loud belly laugh. Laughter and singing along to your favorite song stimulates the muscles in the back of the throat, while slowing respiration. This stimulation activates the vagus nerve and increases heart rate variability. Gargling and humming do the same thing. The best thing about these activities is that they’re fun and won’t cost you a dime.