Why Stimulating The Vagus Nerve Is Good For Health

Why Stimulating The Vagus Nerve Is Good For Health

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.

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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
  • Insomnia
  • Mental impairment
  • Imbalanced blood sugar
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Migraines
  • GI problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Food sensitivities
  • Chronic inflammation

Benefits of Stimulating The Vagus Nerve


Improving vagal tone has many benefits including:

 

  • 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

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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]

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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.

true health labs banner3. Acupuncture, Massage, and PEMF


Acupuncture strengthens vagal tone by influencing systemic inflammation through the modification of inflammatory markers, such as cytokines. It’s mechanism is similar to that of VNS, or vagal nerve stimulation, which delivers electrical impulses to the vagus nerve through the implantation of a medical device.

VNS is used for intractable epilepsy and depression that doesn’t respond to treatment. It’s referred to as a “pacemaker for the brain.” Massage and reflexology also improve vagal tone. Massaging the carotid sinus, located on the right side of the throat, stimulates the vagus nerve. Stimulation of this area has been shown to reduce seizures. You can give yourself a massage from home using a foam roller or massage balls.

PEMF, or pulsed magnetic field therapy, has been shown to accelerate tissue repair, increase circulation, stimulate detoxification, reduce inflammation, and increase energy. A PEMF device is kind of like a battery charger that innervates the cells. Healthy cells have a voltage of -20 to -25 millivolts. Sickness and degeneration occur when voltage levels drop below -15 millivolts. Since cells cannot heal at this voltage, they become dysfunctional. PEMF delivers electrical magnetic currents into damaged cells. This stimulation also improves vagal tone.

[Read More: 4 Ways Pulsed Electromagnetic Fields Destroy Cancer Cells]

4. Deep Breathing and Exercise


You’ve probably figured out from personal experience that deep breathing is an effective strategy to reduce stress and promote relaxation, although you may not be familiar with the mechanism behind it. When you breathe deeply, pressure is applied to your internal organs, including your lungs and diaphragm.  This pressure massages and stimulates the vagus nerve, giving you all the benefits of improved vagal tone.

Otto Loewi, a German physiologist, discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve released Vagusstoff, which in English  means “vagus substance.” We now know that this substance is the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which incidentally, was the first neurotransmitter to be identified by scientists.  Acetylcholine is like an endogenous tranquilizer, and its release can be stimulated by deep breathing. This is why consciously inhaling and exhaling, slowly and deeply for a few minutes, produces feelings of inner-calm.

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Exercise is amazing for health for a variety of reasons, including improving vagal tone and increasing HRV.  When you work out, your brain is flooded with a signal called proprioception, which activates the rest and relaxation branch of the ANS.

The deep breathing associated with exercise also increases vagal tone. This is why you can feel lethargic and unmotivated before an exercise session, but euphoric and relaxed afterwards. Sunshine and grounding also improve vagal tone so if you’re exercising outside, you’re getting a double whammy.

5. Cold Therapy


The parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated by the body’s response to cold temperatures, which reduces sympathetic activation. This is why cryotherapy, or cold therapy, is becoming increasingly more popular, with its wide range of health benefits. More studies are being conducted on how cold affects the nervous system, but the exact mechanisms are still unclear.

Cyrotherapy is a protocol where parts of the body, or the entire body, are exposed to cold temperatures for short amounts of time. There are several ways to incorporate cold therapy into your routine, including cold showers, ice baths, or using ice packs on a specific area of your body. You can also go outside in cold weather wearing little clothing. Check out these soft ice universal wraps from Promolife.

To take an ice bath, buy several bags of ice at your local market, put in the tub, and fill with water. Soak (or freeze) for five to 10 minutes, but never longer than 10 minutes. The temperature of the bath should not exceed 60 degrees. Cold showers are another way to increase vagal tone. You’ll need to slowly increase your tolerance. Begin by ending your warm shower with 30 to 60 seconds of cold water, gradually increasing the duration.

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Key Points


Good vagal tone is associated with lower levels of pain, inflammation, and depression, and higher levels of well-being. It’s also correlated with greater degrees of resiliency to stress. Working on improving vagal tone will pay significant dividends when it comes to your health. Sing, laugh, and breathe your way to incredible health by training your nervous system to lean towards the rest and digest branch. Just one more reason to be happy!

Have you heard of the vagus nerve? Let me know in the comments:)

 

 

References:

(1) US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Vagus Nerve Stimulation

(2) MedicineNet:  Medical Definition of Autonomic nervous system

(3) MERCK MANUAL Consumer Version: Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System 

(4) BottomLineInc: 8 Ways to Improve Vagal Tone – An Get Healthier

(5)  Explore Health: What Is Heart Rate Variability – and Do You Need To Know Yours?

(6) David R Hamilton PHD: The vagus nerve and cancer

(7) The Effect of Acupuncture on the Vagus Nerve to Influence Systemic Inflammation by Zaria L. Valentine

(8) Psychology Today: Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dramatically Reduces Inflammation

(9) PubMed.gov: Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation

(10) Dr. Brady Salcido: Top 5 Ways To Activate Your Vagus Nerve To Crush Brain Fog

(11) healthline: Benefits of Cryotherapy

(12) Cryotherapy Treatments: At Home Cryotherapy Treatments

(13) PubMed.gov: Vagal stimulation by manual carotid sinus massage to acutely suppress seizures

(14) Curatonic Ltd: PEMT or PEMFT?

8 thoughts on “Why Stimulating The Vagus Nerve Is Good For Health”

  1. I must say that I really like the way you have provided details on the vagus nerve. It is actually the first time that I have heard about the vagus nerve. I really didn’t think that stimulating it woudl be as easy as you have explained here. I need to explore all the possibilities. I’ll share this post with my friends to learn something new like i have learned here.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. The vagus nerve is pretty fascinating, and the good news is it’s easy to activate. Singing, laughing, and exercise are all great for stimulating the nerve, and shifting your nervous system into the rest and relax branch of the nervous system. I appreciate you sharing my post:)

  2. This is an entirely different and new aspect of learning for me today. I have never heard of the vagus nerve before but then, reading about it here, has been enlightening.  Since I do not have a foregrounded knowledge on how the vagus nerve works or what makes it work the way it does, I really learned a lot from your post. Thank you so much for sharing this with us all. Thumbs up!

  3. It’s true that having good vagal tone Is vital to the body’s functionality, as it helps the body get into a relaxed state after being stressed, which is essential for good health. Having low vagal tone, on the other hand, can be very deleterious to health, and can cause a series of issues as has been listed in this article. 

    Stating the benefits of having good vagal tone was very informative. Thanks for sharing this post and most importantly for listing the 5 ways to keep a balanced vagal tone.

  4. Hi Coach, I must admit it’s been a great experience reading through this post, and gaining so much knowledge on the vagus nerve. Having to deal with so many problems like anxiety, migraine and mental issues from having a low vagal tone is something I wouldn’t want to experience.

    I’m sure many suffer from low vagal tone, but from your post, there are ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to make it function better.  From now on I’ll take my time and laugh as much as I can and do these activities to avoid a low vagal tone. Indeed knowledge is power. Its a pleasure to be here.

    • Hi Benson.

      Thanks for reading my article on the vagus nerve. It’s a fascinating nerve and the longest one in the body. Vagal tone corresponds to heart rate variability, which is a measure of autonomic nervous system function. Fortunately, there are ways to active the vagus nerve, some of which are pretty simple. I appreciate your comment:)

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