The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, and it interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. If you’re not familiar with how the parasympathetic system works, it’s your body’s mechanism to restore calm. We know that stress and emotional distress play a huge role in the development of disease or imbalance in the body. The better vagal tone you have, the better you can handle stress so it doesn’t get to a place where it is contributing to dis-ease in the body.
The vagus nerve goes from the brainstem all the way to the colon, and it provides many functions including regulating heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and senses pain receptors. Because it sends signals from our organs to our brain, we can increase our vagal tone to help with gut-brain connection problems like irritable bowel and even our mood and anxiety. You can’t properly address core health issues without optimizing vagus nerve function. Better vagal tone will help you better manage stress and be more resilient.
Being in a parasympathetic state is where we want to live most of the time. This is known as our “rest and digest” state. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, means “fight or flight.” This is good in those times when we need our bodies to respond to a threatening situation, but we don’t want to live in that state very often. The vagus nerve can help us to shift more into parasympathetic mode. When the parasympathetic system is “on” it dampens the sympathetic system, so the vagus nerve can actually act as an “on/off” switch. In other words, when our parasympathetic system is activated, it helps us relax, regenerate, repair, digest, and even detox.
If there is any damage to the vagus nerve it can cause problems with the communication between the brain and the organs and contribute to chronic illness. Physician and author of Essential Oils to Boost the Brain and Heal the Body, Jodi Cohen notes that 95% of his patients have vagus nerve dysfunction related to their illness. Vagus nerve toxicity can alter the production of neurotransmitters like GABA, which can reduce anxiety, improve mood, and affect the hormones that impact brain function and mental health. Since the vagus nerve connects the brain to all of the major organ systems, any interference can affect every part of your body. Toxins play a key role in vagus nerve dysfunction. These toxins can be from heavy metals, antibiotics, bacteria, viruses, parasites, or environmental toxins. We know that many toxins are lipophilic, or fat-loving, and have an affinity for brain and nervous tissue, including the vagus nerve. Other causes of vagus nerve dysfunction include stress, physical trauma, or emotional trauma.
So how can you determine the strength of your vagal tone? The best way to measure your vagal tone is to check your heart rate variability. This is the process where your heart rate speeds up when you inhale and slows down when you exhale. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart rate and exhalation heart rate is, the better your vagal tone. There is a device called a HeartMath, which helps provide real time biofeedback to improve your vagal tone. Research has shown that HeartMath can improve sleep, mood, focus, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
The easiest way to begin to work on vagal tone is by breathing. There are many ways to do this, but an easy one is using DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING. By actively reducing your heart rate throughout the day with conscious breathwork, you can increase your emotional control and psychological well-being. To do this, limit the number of sensory inputs like sound and light, and focus on your breath. As little as one minute of diaphragmatic breathing a few times per day has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the cardiopulmonary system and enhance parasympathetic activation. One of my favorite ways to activate vagal tone through breath work is the following:
Breathe in to the count of 5
Hold to the count of 5
Breathe out to the count of 5
Wait to the count of 5 before breathing back in
The simple act of being still and consciously focusing on your breath and/or parts of your body can help you stay in the present moment, which is where “peace” lives. We’ve discussed this quite a bit in our podcast discussing yoga, exercise and meditation. If you haven’t started a practice of deep breathing, I definitely encourage you to find time in your day to do this - it’s so beneficial.
A few other ideas to strengthen your vagal tone are to focus on gut health, like drinking lots of water, using probiotic strains like L. rhamnosus, eating lots of veggies and fruits that feed our good gut bacteria, and even intermittent fasting can help. If you can stop eating 3-4 hours before bedtime and get a good night’s sleep, you can get a twelve hour fast in before you eat breakfast the next morning. One other idea is cold thermogenesis. This is simply exposing yourself to cold temperatures, which can activate the vagus nerve. A couple of good ways to start are to put your face in cold water, or at the end of your shower turn the water to cold for 30 seconds and increase from there.