If you have no idea what the vagus nerve is or why it is important then you must read further because you may be missing out on easy ways to maximize your body’s ability to rest, relax and digest.
This post is not intended to be medical advice or substitute for proper medical advice to diagnose, treat or heal. Please discuss any changes you might make with your doctor.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve, or cranial nerve 10, is the longest cranial nerve in the body and plays a significant role in the parasympathetic nervous system and heart rate variability. The nerve travels extensively throughout the body, touching on many organ and body systems showing its influence throughout the body.
Why is it Important to Tone Your Vagus Nerve?
To tone the vagal nerve means to help regulate it, to help it respond optimally and to reduce the fight or flight activation of the sympathetic nervous system from firing when it shouldn’t be. Since the vagus nerve plays such an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest mechanism that we should be living in a majority of the time), let’s look there for some answers.
The parasympathetic nervous system plays a pivotal aspect in one’s mood, immune response, digestion and heart rate (including heart rate variability HRV).
There is preliminary evidence that toning the vagal nerve helps in cases of depression, post traumatic stress disorder and inflammatory bowel disease.
Since the vagal tone is correlated with capacity to regulate stress responses and can be influenced by breathing, its increase through meditation and [mind-body fitness practices] likely contribute to resilience and the mitigation of mood and anxiety symptoms.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128/
The literature also shows how the vagus nerve connects the gut to the brain (referred to by some as the Gut-Brain-Axis) and toning of the nerve can help both the gut, the brain and the rest of the body function optimally.
This shows us several things about the vagus nerve. For one, with the vagus nerve being so related to the parasympathetic nervous system, activating it and toning it can help one in so many different ways. Ways that many women with endometriosis struggle with including depression, anxiety, digestive troubles for example. Second, the literature shows that we can help influence the toning of this vagal nerve with some important and learnable practices. It is like a muscle that we can train to become stronger and more resilient.
Can Vagal Nerve Stimulation Help with Pelvic Pain or Endometriosis?
To discover if vagal nerve stimulation can help with pelvic pain, one must dig further and learn about heart rate variability (HRV). Wearable devices track components of health such as the heart rate’s variability, which is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. The variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and helps to balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
During a fight-or-flight mode, when the the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the variation between heartbeats is low. However, when the body is in a more relaxed state such as when the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, the variation between beats is higher.
When the autonomic nervous system is healthy, it can switch between fight or flight and rest and digest much more efficiently and effectively. This is an indication of resilience.
What does this have to do with endometriosis?
Well, we already know that stress can impact the gut and the gut can impact one’s stress. Since women with endo typically have stress on their bodies already given the chronic inflammatory nature of endometriosis, as well as moods possibly including depression and anxiety we can infer a few things. One, that this stress in addition to outside stressors can impact the gut and the neurotransmitters between the gut and the brain.
Vagus nerve toning is also found to help reduce pain.
So, in a round-about way, shifting the body into a more restful state (parasympathetic system) through the practices below may play a role in sending signals of safety throughout the body, and into the gut where dysbiosis may be present.
Toning the vagus nerve is not a one-trick pony to heal your entire body, but think of it as a lifestyle approach to greater well-being that supports health throughout the body.
What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
To stimulate your vagus nerve means to tone your vagal nerve, or strengthen its ability to do its job like lifting weights increases muscle strength.
The vagus nerve can become weak especially if a person already has gut dysbiosis, depression and trauma. It can become weak through unhelpful lifestyle choices.
Ways to Tone your Vagal Nerve
So, what are ways that you can tone your vagal nerve?
Diaphragmatic Breathing and Meditation
Diaphragmatic breathing and meditation have been shown to reduce the stress response. In recent studies, slow breathing techniques have been demonstrated to enhance autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility (and increase Heart Rate Variability HRV).
Rhythmic, steady and slow breathing is a practice you can learn to incorporate into your life with some practice. Once you get used to the idea you may remember to take a breathing break because of how calm you feel afterwards. It doesn’t even necessarily matter the method you use to breathe, you can do what feels best for you.
Tip: Practice breathing throughout the day.
You may also like: What Deep Rest Looks Like And How To Get There in 4 Ways
As discussed in this post on meal spacing, taking breaks in between your meals or even one very large break such as inbetween dinner and breakfast can really help your gut have the time it needs to heal and do its non-digestion functions. Since the gut has a direct line of communication through the vagus nerve to the brain, by taking care of your gut you are taking care of your vagus nerve.
Tip: Fast in between dinner and breakfast.
Laughing as we all know can be a delight of life. The act of laughing can relax and help tone the vagus nerve because it can induce diaphragmatic movements and done the cardiac muscles and soothe the parasympathetic nervous system. Laughter can also relieve emotional stress. Singing or chanting can also provide similar stimulation and relaxation.
Tip: So, make sure you spend some time spending time with people who make you laugh or watch your favorite comedian more often.
Meditative prayer can help tone the vagus nerve according to one study. In the Italian study, praying the rosary or chanting the Ave Maria caused striking, powerful, and synchronous increases in existing cardiovascular rhythms when recited six times a minute.
This rhythmic prayer is thought to help psychologically and physiologically.
Tip: Try praying the rosary or using a word or mantra while you meditate.
Staying Connected to Others
Vagal tone is linked to social and psychological well being. In fact, in a study where vagal tone was measured, those who capitalized on social and emotional connections resulting in opportunistic gains also increased their vagal tone function.
In fact, those in a study group who already had a high vagal tone actually experienced a more rapid increase positive emotions and connectedness, while connectedness and positive emotions predicted a higher vagal tone as well. The researchers, Fredrickson and Kok, referred to this as the upward spiral of relationship causality as one causes the other.
Tip: Stay connected with your favorite relationships and make new connections.
We all know that exercise can be good, but did you know it can help tone this important calming nerve? If you stay in an activity level that supports your heart rate variability, as opposed to wearing yourself out, you can actually increase your variability and vagal tone. Finding the appropriate interval and endurance training for your stamina level is key.
Tip: Work exercise that works for you into your schedule.
Exposure to cold stimulates the vagus nerve, so washing your face with cold water or taking a cold shower can help to relax and reduce your heart rate.
Tip: Switch up your hot shower with some cold water to tone your vagus nerve.
Probiotics can be very helpful for people who show signs of gut dysbiosis. They can be found in foods such as homemade sauerkraut or kefir, or in store-bought capsule form.
Considering all of the research about the gut and brain connection, plus how the vagus nerve serves as an interface for this connection, supporting out gut can have an impact on this important nerve.
If you are not feeling like the pinnacle of health and wellness, do not despair. By learning how to best support yourself you can improve your health and well-being. Is it time for a 30-Day Challenge? Use this to guide you for how to start down a new path today.
What is the fastest way to calm the vagus nerve?
One of the fastest and easiest ways to calm the vagus nerve is to simple practice deep and slow breathing. This is something you can do anywhere, anytime, is free and no training required.
How do you stimulate vagal tone?
Vagal tone can be stimulated with physical movements of the nerve (laughing, gargling, singing, breathing, etc.) but also through experiences that feel good and calm us down such as staying socially connected.
Where do you massage the vagus nerve?
This post does not detail how to massage the vagus nerve per se, though some of the practices that tone the nerve can also serve as a massage for it. For example, each of these practices has been shown to stimulate, activate or in essence massage the vagus nerve. For more information on how massage can help with endometriosis check out this post on the benefits of massage plus how to.
How do you know if you have low vagal tone?
Vagal tone is the measure of autonomic nervous system flexibility. If your vagal neve has a hard time switching between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, you most likely have low vagal tone. This can be measured with one’s heart rate variability such as with a Fitbit or other wearable heart rate monitoring device.
How do you know if you have good vagal tone?
Similarly, you can tell if you have good vagal tone by measuring your heart rate variability. A higher rate variability typically associated with a better vagal tone.
The body is an amazing place to dwell – hopefully you feel more inspired to start making simple changes to transform your day to day life. Let me know how it goes if you begin making changes!