9 Ways to Increase Vagus Nerve Tone

vagus-nerve

If you're a sports fan you'll recognize the names Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

Phelps is the the GOAT of swimming and the most decorated Olympian of all time. Simone Biles is tied as the most decorated Olympic gymnast of all time. And Naomi Osaka is a former world number one tennis player with four grand slam titles to her credit.

Although these athletes all play different sports, they share something in common in that they have all suffered with respect to their mental health. Whether it be anxiety, depression or something else they have all publicly stated the challenges regarding their mental health.

But you don't have to be an elite athlete to feel like it's difficult to cope, manage stress and live a happy and healthy life. 

Besides reducing and or minimizing exposures to stressful situations and events, there are some things we can do to improve our mental health. 

And these can be related to increasing the tone of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve, all known as the 10th cranial nerve, is the longest nerve in the body. It runs from the brain stem down through the abdomen. And while there are two branches, i.e. a left and right, we simply refer to them in the singular as the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for 'rest and digest' state we all seek.

Below are a number of thing you can do to increase the tone of the vagus nerve and put us in the state of rest and digest as opposed to fight or flight.

1. Cold Exposure - I don't enjoy cold water but that doesn't mean I don't recognize the benefits of a cold shower. Cold water exposure can help lower the sympathetic response through activity of the vagus nerve. If you're really brave you can go straight to ice baths. Whatever you choose, start with 30 seconds of cold exposure and increase the duration gradually.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing - This will help reduce anxiety and induce calmness by stimulating the vagus nerve. Start on your back and inhale for 2 seconds through the nose. Expand the stomach as though filling a balloon. Hold the breath for 2 seconds and then exhale for 4 seconds. Continue using the ratio of 1:1:2 for the time spent during inhale:hold: exhale.

3. Sing - If you're not that good, save it for the shower or car when driving alone. The vocal chords at the back of the throat are in close proximity and singing will increase tone of the vagal nerve. Other options that could work include humming or gargling. This has also been shown to increase HRV (heart rate variability).

4. Probiotics - There are harmful  and beneficial bacteria in our stomach. When the diet of mice is supplement with probiotics we notice reduced anxiety and less depression. Think back to a time when you had to perform and had butter flies? Vagus nerve tone was probably reduced at this time and you felt off as a result.

5. Meditation - I see this as paired with diaphragmatic breathing. Meditation stimulates the vagus nerve and increases vagal tone. Feelings of goodwill usually follow a session of meditation. 

6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids - We are aware of the positive benefits of omega-3 supplementation on brain health. Fish consumption, high in O-3a, is associated with increased HRV, reduced heart rate and increased parasympathetic activity.

7. Exercise - The great thing about using exercise for mental health is that there are no side effects, as there may be with  prescriptions, and the effects don't stop as they may when tolerance is reached with a drug. Exercise helps stimulate the vagus nerve with a goal of frequent, intense activity.

8. Massage - While a non-specific massage can help increase vagal activity, there are some areas that are more effective than others. Target the feet and carotid sinus to get the most benefit in this regard.

9. Laughter - Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve and increases heart rate variability and positive emotions. So watch a funny show, hang out with entertaining friends or go see a comedian. And doing any of these with others, as opposed to alone, would be more effective. 

Go through the list and see which of these strategies you could work into your routine. You'll see a positive improvement in your mental and physical health the more habits you incorporate and the longer you apply them.



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Wednesday, 05 October 2022

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