Much about good health and a healthy long life is now being linked to the ‘tone’ of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Because the sympathetic nervous system which invokes ‘flight or fight’ response is also commonly over-activated in stressful and fast paced living, it is more important than ever to tone the parasympathetic system for mind and body, in addition to high activity exercise.
Toning the parasympathetic system assists in repair and rebuilding to all cells and tissues in the body, quicker recovery and shifts into relaxation, lowering blood pressure, and helping recovery from adrenal fatigue. Having both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems toned and balanced is important for mitochondrial functioning, lowering inflammation, regulating hunger and hormonal balance and boosting immunity.
The importance of regulation and health of microbiome in the body is tied in with the parasympathetic system health. Much is now being found out about the critical role bacteria plays for health regulation in the body and immunity. Consider the mass of our bacteria is greater than our own body cells, and our body cells contain 3000 genes while there are 2.2 million genes in the DNA of our bacteria with a cross-over of information between our body and brain and these critical bacteria. Microbiome, along with mitochondrial functioning will be covered in another article, but these are now considered two key factors in energy production, disease prevention, brain health and long term anti-ageing for healthy longevity and are also linked up with the tone and functioning of the vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve
A key component to the parasympathetic system that is now taking centre stage amongst many practitioners of health and healthy lifestyles is the vagus nerve. This is a two-way highway of energy and information between body and brain. Taking its name from the latin word for “wandering”, it is the tenth and biggest cranial nerve extending directly from the medulla (brain stem) to most of the body. It affects facial muscles and eyes when we relax and smile, connecting to our digestive system from our throat to all digestive organs, and connects with our heart and lungs. It’s connection to the digestive organs of the liver and kidneys mean it is not only impacting our digestion and metabolism but also detoxification and elimination of waste and by-products of what we eat, breath and put our bodies through with stress and over – or under-activity. A toned nervous system supports stability in mood, memory, and overall brain health. So there are many systems of rejuvenation and body functioning that the vagus nerve impacts, to indicate it is a key factor in a holistic approach to health.
Here are some conditions and health factors that are associated with the level of tone of the vagus nerve:
- the bodies inflammatory response: many chronic as well as acute conditions are now understood to be associated with inflammation
- Repair and cell growth of brain cells and assisting in memory
- Depression and anxiety
- Immunity including the level of T-cell and killer cell response to disease and body repair
- Various addictions and compulsive disorders
- Mental health disorders
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Vagal tone can be indicated through the many bodily systems it affects and is generally measured directly through combined testing of heart and breathing rates, as well as heart rate variability (HRV) which is associated with the adaptability of your body to changes in external and internal conditions. HRV and vagal tone are closely correlated to one another – if one is functioning highly, then so is the other.
How do you ensure that you have good vagal toning? The same key factors recognised for vagal toning match most of the key factors recognised for acquiring and maintaining good health and healthy longevity! Here they are:
- Cold Exposure
Acute cold exposure is shown by many researchers to activate the vagus nerve. It is a key factor to the Wim Hof Method which uses exposure to cold and breathing techniques for activating health and vitality. Just using ice cold water on the face is enough, or incorporating a brief cold shower into your usual shower routine. Within two weeks or less, most people notice a decline in the deep inhale or breath hold reaction to sudden cold, and notice a more relaxed response to the sudden exposure to cold. This indicates neural adaptation and vagal toning.
Vagus nerve stimulation increases parasympathetic activity throughout the body and stimulates digestion and metabolism. Our bodies evolved to rely on such stimulation and environmental stressors like cold, which we now lack in the modern world of controlled environments. It only takes a little to strengthen and activate important functions of resilience towards these stressors which in turn enhances our resilience to stressors in general.
- Deep Slow Breathing
The direct correlation between breath and heart rate (as well as HRV) and the vagus nerve that modulate or regulates them, means conscious breathing is also a quick, powerful and easy way to activate the vagus nerve. Research shows benefits to blood pressure and hypertension with breathing exercises alone. High breathing rates activate the sympathetic nervous system while slow deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and so helps autonomic functions like the respiratory and cardio-vascular systems to go into repair and recovery.
The most basic exercise is to do 1-3 minutes of inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, then waiting for another count of four before repeating. Doing this when your getting stressed at home or office, car or shopping mall will help brain function, effectiveness and comfortability go up and stress levels go down by releasing calming chemicals to feed your brain rather than stress chemicals to your muscles.
- Synchronised Movement and Breath like Yoga, Tai Chi and Xigong
Just like what is said above, breathing itself activates the vagus nerve. Breathing associated with movement that stretches fascial tissue, muscles and joints while opening up energy channels have been found to be very effective in producing calming neurotransmitters like GABA in the brain and body. The traditional forms of yoga that incorporate activity with regular intermittent relaxation in poses like ‘sivasana’ can produce deeper and deeper levels of relaxation and endocrine production for relaxation and mood elevation. Also, particularly activating for the vagus nerve are relaxed movements with deep breathing that are expanding the thoracic (chest) region, inversions (legs up against a wall, various head stands, hand stands and shoulder stands) as well as sustained twisting postures with spine straight and chest out.
In addition to those who have discovered the great benefits of yoga and Tai Chi, these types of activities are being used more and more by high performance athletes to assist in recovery and improved resilience to ongoing physical demands while the same holds true for resilience, good health and mood elevation throughout the challenges of life.
- Meditation and Conscious Presence
After nearly fifty years of scientific studies, vast amounts of research has now been done on various types of meditation and the many benefits. In addition to increased vagal tone, positive emotions and thinking, and feelings of goodwill, studies done in schools and universities also show increases in concentration and brain functioning, and decreases in mental disorders and violent interactions.
Meditation as well as general practice of conscious presence trains the mind to function effectively at brain frequencies that reduce sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ stress responses and increases vagal modulation. Greater insight, creativity, calm awareness, appreciation and mood elevation are among the many other benefits are confirmed in studies. So is the ability to respond and act in situations with less or little stress and adrenaline involved through this type of mind training.
- Exercise or High Intensity Activity
Exercise also has many studies showing it to be an effective way to increase the brains growth hormone, stimulate human growth hormone production during deep sleep, increase important receptor sites for mitochondrial functioning in and on cells, and help reverse cognitive decline and other aspects of ageing.
Exercise as a great stimulator of the vagus nerve may explain some of these benefits.
Walking, weight bearing exercise and high intensity training are all good. Weight bearing is especially good for reversing decline in bone and muscle density and decline of certain hormone levels in the body associated with ageing. So is interval training, in addition to being a very time effective way to build fitness. For interval training, try 10-30 minutes of walking, jogging or cycling 3-4 times a week, with periodic 1-2 minute bursts at maximum pace during each session.
- Probiotics and Dietary Factors
There are many new studies in the last ten years indicating strong associations between brain function and immunity as well as vagal tone with microbiome (micro-organisms in the body) – especially bacteria in the gut.
In addition, dietary factors like essential fatty acids (fats the body can’t make itself like Omega-3 and -6) are critical for cellular integrity, brain and mental health and nerve function. This includes vagal tone, which may be also why dietary fatty acids can help reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability. A great source of these are in certain fish oils (organically farmed or wild-caught salmon are an example or Australian northern river fish like Barramundi are rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils).
Zinc is also a key dietary mineral for vagus nerve stimulation and preventing or improving various certain brain function disorders, mental health and anxiety. Good food sources include oysters, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms, spinach and grass-fed beef for meat eaters.
- Intermittent Fasting
Many health benefits are being documented and studied now on fasting, with more attention lately on short-term intermittent fasting. This also is being shown to help improve brain function and growth hormones, mitochondrial function, brain ‘fog’ and cognitive issues. Fasting and caloric restriction is also being associated with increased HRV again indicating vagal tone improvement.
The ideal is to not eat at least two hours before bed, which also improves sleep patterns. Best results are if most days, people can have a 12 to 16 hour window of not eating between dinner and breakfast. Immunity increases, detoxification and cellular cleansing (cellular death – apoptosis- and cellular reproduction cycles) are also stimulated. The 16 hour window of fasting (with an 8 hour window of healthy eating) is a great way to sustainably lose weight. The 12 hour fasting window is great for general health and weight maintenance (helping to keep down accumulation of unhealthy fat). Once every week, fortnight or month also try a 36 hour fast by only having fluids during one day to reset the body, stimulate many healing processes, increase resilience to disease, environmental and other stressors.
- The Power of the Voice
Vagus nerve expert, Dr. Stephen Porges established Polyvagal Theory. He talks about the hard wiring in our evolution towards flight-or-fight stimulation including response to social communication which encompasses verbal and body language, vocal tone and non-verbal cues.
A soothing voice for adults and children in gentle, slow and rhythmic tones coaxes the brain into a relaxed state faster and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, including the vagal nerve. This is true whether you are the speaker or listener. While the voice is powerful and effective for adults, it is great for young children for whom a modulated and calm voice is powerful for vagal and parasympathetic development and toning during years where much neural programming or conditioning is happening. It is powerful also for babies (especially combined with skin-to-skin contact) and can be utilised regularly and daily in combination with other approaches mentioned in this article.
Singing, humming, chanting and even gargling all stimulate the vagus nerve which connects to the vocal chords and muscles in the throat. These all are shown to also increase the hallmark sign of vagal toning which is increase of heart rate variability.
- Social Lifestyle and Laughter
Quite a few studies on social factors have linked healthy, active and supportive social life with healthy longevity as well as recovery from illness or trauma. In addition, laughter has been shown to be strongly related to good health as well as healing and recovery. Both socialising and laughter reduce cortisol and other stress related hormones, stimulate the vagus nerve and HRV while improving mood and happy hormone production. Unfortunately for some, excessive or heavy alcohol consumption is somewhat counter effective, so moderating consumption while having as much fun and shared frivolity is great for one and all!
- Acupuncture and Massage
Both acupuncture and massage stimulate the vagus nerve, increasing its activity and tone. Specific points and areas like the sole of the foot (reflexology), auricular (ear) acupuncture, points along the side of the neck (near the carotid artery) are especially good for this. They are also effective spots to assist people coming off anti-depressants and other psychiatric medication, assist people with neurodegenerative diseases, as well as general stress related issues.
In closing …. my intention is not to write a scientific paper here. There are many references related to these ten points above which be can provided for specific points on request. Many supporting studies can be found through a simple online search on any term or specific topic. Much is common sense and there’s enough information here to help you take control of stress levels and steer your way into better mind and body health. Having all points above as part of your lifestyle will help disease prevention, increased resilience, promote total health while increasing enjoyment and quality of life.