Viva las Vagus - Rosalyn Palmer
Viva las Vagus
Viva las Vagus - Rosalyn Palmer

Recently I have been excited to find, what seems like, the ‘missing link’ that makes the whole mind and body connection so much more powerful and understood than even I had realised.  
 
For ages, I was referring clients with depression to a leading gut expert and vice versa. We had both found that our skillsets would get so far and then for her she concluded that the IBS or other issue may have a ‘brain’ connection or be due to an emotional imbalance. Equally, I would work therapeutically with clients and they would improve in many ways but still report gut issues.  
 
Watching Dr. Mark Hyman’s ‘The Broken Brain’ about the new understandings of the mind/gut connection I had a light bulb moment. What if that was it for many issues, including depression? Digging deeper I found that the vagus nerve possibly is it.  
 
It is so named due to the way in which it ‘wanders’ like a ‘vagabond’ sending out tiny fibres from your brainstem to your visceral organs (they are the ones in your abdomen and chest including the lungs, heart, liver, pancreas and intestines). Crucial organs. Just like the brain. And this meandering superhighway basically links the brain and gut; extending from your brainstem all the way to your abdomen via all those crucial organs.  
 
It really is the missing link or X-Factor to your good health so it’s apt that it is also called ‘cranial nerve X’ as it forms part of your involuntary nervous system (also called your parasympathetic system) that directs all of the unconscious body actions, like stabilizing your heart rate and making sure your digestive tract is working properly.  
 
Getting the vagus nerve into shape can then positively influence, even treat, chronic inflammation that can lead to issues such as high blood pressure, migraines, digestive problems and arthritis. Naturally.  
 
A healthy balance in the vagus nerve is called ‘the vagal tone’.  This is what activates your parasympathetic nervous system which is your ‘rest and digest’ system. It balances out your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system that was so essential to our survival as a species, but which now floods our bodies daily with unhealthy hormones such as cortisol when we are stuck in traffic rather than facing a sabre-toothed tiger.  
 
A good, or higher, vagal tone enables you to relax faster and brings a whole host of other benefits including: 
 
·      Overall better functioning internal systems including:
·      Better blood sugar regulation
·      Decreased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease
·      Generally lower blood pressure
·      Better digestion due to proper production of digestive enzymes
·      Fewer migraines
·      Less depression
·      Less anxiety (they naturally deal with stress better)
 
What scientists have discovered is that the vagus nerve constantly monitors your gut microbiome to determine if there are any pathogenic organisms, and if so, it initiates a response that then controls any inflammation that results from these foreign organisms, which can affect your mood, your stress levels (and your ability to cope with the stress) and your overall inflammation levels.
 
The ventral branch of the vagal nerve affects body functioning above the diaphragm. This is the branch that serves the social engagement system. The ventral vagal nerve dampens the body’s regularly active state. Picture controlling a horse as you ride it back to the stable. You would continue to pull back on and release the reins in nuanced ways to ensure that the horse maintains an appropriate speed. Likewise, the ventral vagal nerve allows activation in a nuanced way, thus offering a different quality than sympathetic activation.
 
When you are more present in your body and better able to attend to momentary muscular tension, you can wake up from a shutdown response. As you activate out of shutdown and shift toward fight-or-flight sensations, thought-restructuring techniques can teach you to evaluate your safety more accurately. 
 
The ventral vagal nerve affects the middle ear, which filters out background noises to make it easier to hear the human voice. It also affects facial muscles and thus the ability to make communicative facial expressions. Finally, it affects the larynx and thus vocal tone and vocal patterning, helping humans create sounds that soothe one another.
 
Those with poor social engagement system functioning may have inner ear difficulties that make it hard for them to receive soothing from others’ voices.  
 
So, how do you increase your vagal tone?
 
So far, researchers have stimulated the vagus nerve using a device that emits an electrical current but there are other ways to do this yourself.
 
While the studies also reveal that people are genetically predisposed to different levels of vagal tone, with consistent practice, you can alter your tone to some degree using the following methods.
 
1. Humming
You know all of those people you used to think were “new age” because they would sit quietly and repeat the “OM” sound? Well, it turns out they are on to something. Because the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, systematic humming can stimulate the nerve.
 
2. Speaking
Likewise, people who speak more are more likely to be able to raise their vagal tone as talking is done through the vocal cords. Singing and laughter in general will also do the trick.
 
3. Wash your face with cold water
A splash of cold water does seem to stimulate the vagus nerve. Whenever your body is required to adjust to the cold, your fight-or-flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system increases. In other words, any kind of sudden cold exposure will increase vagus nerve activation. You can achieve this by either dipping your face in cold water or take a cold shower.
 
4. Breathing deeply using your diaphragm
Breathing long, deep breaths from your diaphragm can stimulate and tone your vagus nerve.
 
5. Yoga
Research shows that yoga, along with breathing practices, can significantly increase your vagal tone.
 
6. Meditation
According to a 2010 study, people who meditate regularly and think more positive thoughts tend to have better vagal tone.
 
7. Increase Good Gut Bacteria
While there are countless benefits to increasing the healthy bacteria in your gut, surprisingly, this also helps to create a positive “feedback loop” through your vagus nerve and thus increase its tone. Probiotics are a good source of healthy bacteria.
 
All of the above methods are beneficial to your overall health simply for the fact that they also help reduce stress, which is a major factor in disease, but also knowing that you can help improve your vagal tone, and the specific issue of inflammation, is a powerful tool.
 
Add these simple tips to your daily routine and see how much better you feel in a relatively short time.

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