If there’s one thing about life on Earth, it’s that it quite often doesn’t play by the rules! There will be times when life throws us situations that we least expect, even if they seem to have impossible odds, but we can learn to navigate through these situations by harnessing our bodies’ inbuilt ability to deal with stress.
Chronic stress can have a detrimental effect on so many areas of our lives, from interactions in relationships to motivation and abilities to fully engage with life. When the brain and nervous system are locked into the stress response, higher levels of anxiety and irritability are felt, leading to negative moods and a feeling of being stuck. This is because we lose access to the higher cognitive functions of perception, active listening, reasoning and effective communication. But each of us has the capacity to reduce the effects of stress almost instantly by unlocking the power of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is currently a hot topic among contemporary neuroscientists and clinicians as they continue to study the impact of this cranial nerve on the development of social behavior. A long and wandering nerve, the vagus nerve is made of both motor and sensory fibers and connects the brain stem to organs and systems, including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and female sex organs, as well as linking the neck, ears and tongue to the brain. A well-toned vagus nerve helps to regulate blood pressure, glucose levels, digestion and automatic responses like breathing and perspiration. Crucially, the vagus nerve is the power source of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is the body’s involuntary nerve center, and the enteric nervous system (ENS), otherwise known as the gut brain.
These two nervous systems are key not just to the physical function of our bodies but also in our mental well-being. An individual who is feeling the pressure of chronic stress is often locked in a “flight or fight” patterning, which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. The PNS acts in opposition to this, enabling the much more pleasant “rest and digest” pattern. The relationship between the gut and intense emotional states is complex, so much so that the ENS is often referred to as the second brain. Both an autonomous system and a direct influence on the brain, the vagus nerve acts as a communication channel passing many signals from the ENS directly to the central nervous system (the brain). Plenty of research has been undertaken about the importance of keeping the gut healthy, such as a study by McMaster University, which investigated the effects of gut microbes on PTSD. A well-toned vagus nerve is a fundamental part of a healthy gut.
So, what can you do to increase vagal tone and modulation? Well, firstly you can start right now by focusing on your breath. If you’re familiar with meditation or mindfulness practices, you’ll already be aware of the benefits of watching the breath and then controlling it. To get some extra benefit out of a breathing practice, focus on exhaling for longer than you inhale. During an exhalation, vagal tone increases as the heart rate decreases, enabling higher influence from the PNS and contributing to a much calmer state.
If you’d like to explore other natural practices or techniques to improve the function of the vagus nerve, then there are lots of things you can do such as:
- Gargling – Yes, you read that right! Gargling with plain water stimulates the pallet muscles, which, in turn, engages the vagus nerve and even helps to improve memory function.
- Cold showers – They may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you can endure a short burst of cold during your daily shower or even dunking your face in cold water, you’ll wake up that tenth cranial nerve!
- Expressing your voice – Letting your voice be heard, whether through singing, chanting, humming or laughing will increase your heart rate variability and kickstart the vagus nerve so that it can send relaxing waves through your entire nervous system. If you can do any of these in a group, you’re also likely to increase your oxytocin levels, also known as the “love hormone” for some extra feel-good factor.
- Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi – Each of these awareness-based movement practices has been found to have positive effects on anxiety and depression levels when carried out on a regular basis. In fact, any form of mild exercise will stimulate the vagus nerve and the ENS, leading to many general and physical benefits.