Over the past few few years, it has become clear that our mental health is just as important, if not even more important than our physical health.
This article is going to explore how both physical and mental health are interwoven, through something called the Vagus nerve.
We’ll learn what the vagus nerve is, how it impacts our physical and mental well-being, and then share some practical ways that you can improve your vegal tone by optimizing your vegus nerve function.
The ‘Vagus’ nerve (pronounced the same way you would say ‘Las Vegas’!) is a lesser-known, yet critically important component of your nervous system.
It is so important that it controls a great deal of your feeling of well-being (or lack thereof).
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The human body has 12 cranial nerves, one of them being the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve starts in the head and connects to multiple body organs such as the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, etc.
The main role of the vagus nerve is to transmit essential information from the tissues and organs to the brain.
This vagus nerve “wanders” throughout the human body, creating a unified network between your vital organs, and your brain.
The vagus nerve computes sensory information (such as sound, smell, taste, and sight) as well as controls the movement of glands and muscles.
This movement is a part of the autonomic nervous system in the body and it is done unconsciously.
The Vagus Nerve & Your Autonomic Nervous System
The vagus nerve plays a central role in the autonomic nervous system.
Autonomic Nervous System: The autonomic nervous system refers to the body processes that take place without conscious effort, such as breathing, heart rate, sexual arousal, digestion, and respiration.
For example, one does not have to think to breathe as they do it unconsciously nor does one have to think about digestion.
Your autonomic nervous system divided into 2 systems:
- Sympathetic Nervous System
- Parasympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to keep us safe from danger.
It is the part of the nervous system that is activated during a threatening situation, which sparks a ‘fight or flight’ response in the body.
Several physical changes occur when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body prepares to manage potentially stressful situations.
These changes can include:
- Heightened awareness
- Elevated heart rate
- Anxious Mindset
- Tensed Muscles
- Rate of Metabolism Increases
In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system results in a calming effect.
Muscles become relaxed. Digestion slows. The body and mind are benefitting from feelings of safety, and a lack of perceived threats.
Until 1994, these two states were generally accepted as the only two components of the nervous system in the human body.
However during this year, Dr. Stephen W. Porges introduced his (then ground-breaking) theory, which challenged the traditional architecture of the nervous system by adding a third system.
This third system explored how the nervous system impacts not just our bodies, but also our relationships.
He called it ‘Polyvagal Theory’, and it changed the way the scientific community viewed, and evaluated the autonomic nervous system forever.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
What Dr. Porges proposed to the world of psychology nearly 3 decades ago with his Polyvagal Theory keys in on the way that the autonomic nervous system impacts social interaction and behavior.2
This was a significant extension of the standard approach to the autonomic nervous system, which focused primarily on the individual physically, without regard to behavior.
Polyvagal Theory introduced a new framework for evaluating how the nervous system impacts behavior (mostly social) called the Social Engagement System.
The Social Engagement System proposes that the different states of the nervous system impact the way we interact with others through the physical changes that take place in our bodies during each state.
For example, according to Polyvagal theory, when someone is in a state in which the sympathetic nervous system is activated, their facial features will become tensed (in ways beyond the conscious control of that person), causing those around them to (often unconsciously) avoid interacting with them.
In this state, the same individual is also likely to misidentify another person’s current mood or mentality.
i.e. someone in a ‘sympathetic state’ is likely to think someone is angry, when they are really in an agreeable state!
It’s similar to the phenomenon you see at your local dog park every day.
Polyvagal Theory at the Dog Park
If you’ve been to a dog park, this will be the perfect example of Polyvagal Theory in practice.
You walk your dog to the park on a beautiful Saturday morning.
Birds are chirping playfully, and the owners are wandering blissfully, coffee in hand, observing their furry charges.
You’ll notice that some dogs bark at others in a triggered, instinctive, way, but for no apparent reason.
What has happened is that their ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms have been activated, as they feel threatened in a situation that they perceive to be threatening.
The barking, and snarling is a mixture of conscious, and unconscious actions that send signals to those around them to stay away, or else!
However, some other dogs may simply wish to play and provide social cues to allow other dogs to know.
But the trick is – those dogs that are playful and curious aren’t consciously putting out those signals.
Their social engagement system is demonstrating the things that tell others that they are open to play, and learning.
These playful cues are indicators that the dog feels safe in the current environment, and is therefore allowing others to operate in their social engagement system.
What is Vagal Tone?
Vagal tone is defined as “impulses from the vagus nerve producing inhibition of the heartbeat.”
The logic is that when one has a higher vagal tone, they are able to relax quicker after a stressful situation.
When someone has a low vagal tone, they are at an increased risk for long term stress that can cause anxiety, GI issues, depression, etc.
The Importance of Optimal Vagal Tone
As mentioned previously, the vagus nerve is connected to many organs (heart, stomach, intestines, esophagus, etc.).
Recall, when the body is in a sympathetic system mode, it triggers the ‘fight or flight’ feeling.
One will feel stressed, the heart rate will increase, blood pressure goes up, skin can be flushed, and muscles tense.
When the vagus nerve is healthy, and vagal tone is optimized, the vagus nerve can activate the parasympathetic system efficiently after the perceived threat is gone.
The body will calm down. The heart rate decreases, breathing slows down, digestion continues as normal, and blood pressure normalizes.
If the vagus nerve is not functioning properly, and one’s vagal tone is poor, the body can remain in a sympathetic state for longer than it needs to be.
Long-term consequences of poor vagal tone include anxiety and/or depression, weight changes, altered heart rate, chronic inflammation, gastrointestinal issues, sleep issues, and more.
As you can tell, it’s essential to ensure that our vagal tone is healthy.
Ways to Improve Vagal Tone
So by now you are convinced that improving vagal tone is a good idea.
But how do you improve vagal tone?
Luckily, there are several things that we can do to improve our vagal tone, which can improve the quality of our social interactions, relationships, and overall well-being.
These things usually fall into one of two categories: dietary, or behavioral.
Let’s star with some dietary tips for improving vagal tone
1. Avoid Extreme Diets
Extreme diets are all the rage these days. And while various diets can be effective ways to lose weight, some of them might not be the best for our vagal tone.
In fact, recent research has shown that both high-carb and high fat diets may actually impair standard vagus nerve function.3
So while a high-carb diet is rarely recommended for anyone (except dedicated athletes in certain sports), a diet higher in fat is becoming more and more common.
Diets like the Paleo diet, or ‘caveman’ diet are often high in fats and protein, and low in carbs.
This may end up being the best diet for you, but it is worth contemplating if it will impact vagal tone.
That all being said, and in a seeming contradiction, some studies show that fasting diets actually may improve vagal tone.6
2. Consider Probiotics
You may have heard that probiotics can help you lose weight, but did you know that they can also help you improve your vagal tone?
Probiotic supplementation is actually one of the most researched tactics for improving vagal tone.
There have been several older studies showing that consuming probiotics supports a healthy central nervous system.4
But as the scientific community turns it’s attention to Polyvagal Theory, newer research has emerged, and the results are fascinating.
It has been recently shown that Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are most beneficial for improving nervous system function.5
One can find Bifidobacterium in items such as yogurt (with added cultures), cured meats, kefir, and sourdough bread. Lactobacillus can be found in sauerkraut, some cottage cheeses, as well as kefir and tempeh. Both are also available in supplemental form.
Some probiotics can have a beneficial impact on preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases through adjustment of the vagus nerve.
The strains reviewed included Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus casei.7
3. Take Omega-3s and Enzyme Supplements
And while not a probiotic, it is worth mentioning that cysteine proteases may have a positive impact on vagal function.
Cysteine Proteases (not to be confused with cysteine, an important essential amino acid) are enzymes that help break down proteins.
In 2020, it was indicated that cysteine proteases from bacteria can increase the vagus nerve’s actions. The focus area of this article was on gut microbiota which aids in digestion.8
Foods that are rich in cysteine proteases include figs, papaya, and pineapple.
While they might not have a direct impact on vagal tone, omega-3s can have a positive impact on your mood.
In fact it is one of the top supplements for reducing depression and anxiety.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can also help adjust one’s heart rate through the autonomic nervous system.10
Foods high in omega-3 include items like salmon, oysters, flax seeds, soybeans, walnuts, and chia seeds.
While these dietary tips for improving vagal tone can be impactful, the most change is likely to result from the following behaviors/lifestyle changes.
4. Practice Yoga/Meditation
Yoga combines fitness with focused breathing, which can help decrease blood pressure and heart rate.
Yoga has been linked to decreases in stress levels as well as diseases.
Blake V. Kent notes that prayer helps people cope with life stressors.
This could also be a result of talking about one’s stress with the powers that be.
Some people find it helpful to talk with other’s or talk through their stressors in life.
6. Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises help lower stress levels and improve vagal tone by bringing concentration to the breathe.
This is a large component of meditation, but is effective as a standalone practice as well.
A good beginner’s exercise is to inhale deeply for 8 seconds, hold the breath in for 8 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds.
Repeat 8 times.
7. Physical Activity & Exercise
Exercise not only releases ‘feel-good’ endorphins, but can also help improve vagal tone.
Similar to yoga, the physical challenge, and then rest and recovery of a good workout help the nervous system function properly.
8. Laughing & Singing
The physical act of laughing can cause changes in one’s body that help to relax it.
For example, the lungs fill with air, blood is circulated, and muscles tense then relax.
In addition, the act of singing actually stimulates the vagus nerve and improves vagal tone.
9. Get a Massage
A skilled masseuse is able to rub the muscles in a way that helps relieve tension.
The reduction in stress levels is due in part to vagus nerve stimulation.
A List of Things You Can Do To Improve Vagal Tone
One’s vagal tone can have a big impact on their overall health. The good news is that as you have learned today, there are ways to improve it.
To summarize, here are our top picks for actionable ways to improve your vagal tone today:
- Avoid extreme diets
- Consider probiotic supplements
- Eat foods rich in Omega-3s, and eat adequate amounts of fresh fruits & vegetables
- Practice yoga, meditate, or practice mindfulness
- Breathing exercises
- Engage in physical activity
- Laughing & Singing
- Get a Massage
We hope this has helped you identify a handful of practical ways that you can improve your vagal tone. Remember, before making any significant diet or lifestyle change, it is always important to speak with your doctor to determine what is healthiest for you.*
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