Unless you are well-practiced in the art of yoga and deep breathing techniques, you have probably never heard of the vagus nerve or vagal tone. Yet, there are so many reasons that you should be aware of it...
The vagus nerve is arguably one of the most critical components of the “mind-body connection.”
From ancient Chinese practitioners to experts at Harvard Health, many believe in the influence of the vagus nerve and feel that it’s responsible for optimal well-being and health, especially for those who suffer from chronic diseases. In this post, we will review the background of the vagus nerve, its importance, and 6 ways you can increase vagal tone to promote health and wellness.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body. It begins in your neck and travels down your torso, across the chest, and through your stomach. It is made up of millions of tiny fibers that feed information to the brain about our internal organs, lungs, heart, and face. Additionally, the vagus nerve plays an important part in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the body after a stressful event.
What is vagal tone and why is it important?
Vagal tone is a term that describes how well the vagus nerve is working. Without fancy equipment or open heart surgery, vagal tone can only be estimated and is highly individualized to each person. One way to estimate vagal tone is through heart rate variability (HRV). Measuring HRV has become a popular fitness trend, but it’s important to know how this relates to vagal tone.
Heart rate variability is the measure of variability, or change, that your heart rate is capable of producing. High HRV is usually preferred over low HRV because it means that your heart is capable of fluctuating between high and low heart rates. A wide range in heart rate is also seen as an indication of good vagal tone. The stronger your vagal tone is, the more your body can regulate blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of developing diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
Low HRV is not typically viewed as a sign of good health. It usually means that your heart rate is not capable of recovering well after stressful situations and, instead, remains in a constant state of stress within a smaller heart rate range. A low vagal tone, as measured by HRV, is commonly seen in people with digestive disorders and inflammatory bowel diseases. It has also been linked to chronic levels of inflammation that can become difficult to control.
Did You Know: The vagus nerve is responsible for resetting the immune system to turn off the inflammation process. Brief periods of inflammation, especially after an injury, are critical to allow the body to heal. However, a constant state of inflammation can wreak havoc on internal organs and blood vessels.
Signs of low vagal tone might include:
- Limited ability to regulate emotions
- Low attention span
- Increased levels of inflammation
How to improve vagal tone
Fight off low vagal tone by incorporating some (or all) of these tips into your daily routine. Staying away from processed foods and munchies high in salt and sugar can also benefit you.
1. Start off your morning with a cold shower.
According to ancient Chinese rituals, cold water can stimulate the vagus nerve and is part of the reason why hot/cold baths are so popular. If this doesn’t appeal to you, try washing or splashing your face with cold water, which can have a similar impact on the vagus nerve.
2. Next, belt out your favorite song during your morning commute.
Not only are we totally supportive of your secret singing career, but we also believe that singing releases the “happy hormones,” oxytocin and serotonin, which are known to relieve stress. Studies claim that singing can increase HRV because it can promote relaxation and a better response to internal stressors.
If you are shy about your stage voice, rest assured that you can hum your favorite tune and still reap the benefits.
How is this possible? The vagus nerve wraps around the vocal cords and is stimulated by the vibrations during singing or humming. Stimulation of the vagus nerve via the vocal cords can drive changes to your heart-rate variability and raise vagal tone over time.
3. Make good choices for lunch.
Did you know that the vagus nerve also connects the brain to your intestines? More and more evidence points to the fact that our gut health can affect the brain and its functions. This means that you should eat well, stay hydrated, and consume whole food probiotics to maintain your gut health. Unsure which probiotics are best for you? For FB Plus members, check out the article, What Are Probiotics and Are They Good for Me? written by one of our amazing Registered Dietitians.
4. While you’re on your lunch break, watch a video that makes you laugh or have an engaging conversation with a coworker (even if that coworker is your toddler!).
There is something to be said for laughter and socializing, especially when it comes to your mental health. More than a few studies suggest that laughing is medically beneficial because it increases chemicals in the body that help us feel good and relieve stress. While the direct connection between laughter and the vagus nerve has yet to be clearly defined, it certainly can’t hurt to laugh and spend time with people you care about.
5. Take the stairs.
Exercise has been known to have positive effects on heart rate variability and, therefore, indirectly benefits vagal tone. Also, exercise can activate movement in your intestines, which can help with digestion and regulation of your bowel movements. We recommend achieving the weekly goal of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or a daily goal of 30 minute workouts, five times per week.
6. Finish your day with meditation and deep breathing practices.
This is probably the most influential way to improve your vagal tone. When we inhale, our lungs send signals to the brain via the vagus nerve. As we exhale, the brain responds to the message from the lungs and instructs the heart to speed up or slow down accordingly. Therefore, you can directly affect your heart rate by controlling your breathing pattern.
Pay close attention to your exhales as they are the ones responsible for triggering relaxation. This is when vagal activity is at its highest and the heart rate at its lowest. Ideally, you should practice inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for a count of six. Because vagal tone is related to the stress response, it can be influenced by practices, like meditation and yoga, that emphasize the breath and mindfulness. However, experts warn against the practice of simple meditation without connection and state that changes to vagal tone can only occur when you actively focus on happy thoughts and positive connections with others.
Want to learn more about breathing patterns? Check out our article, Learn How to Breathe Through Your Pain in 4 Steps, dealing with the art of breathing and pain patterns.
It is clear that more research is needed to understand the effects of the vagus nerve on our mood, feelings, and connections with others. However, we do know that vagal tone is positively connected to our emotions, breathing pattern, and gut health.
What if these tips don't work?
Sometimes, though, thinking happy thoughts and singing in the shower is not enough. There are times when changing your vagal tone and brain chemistry are beyond your control and unaffected by the approaches listed above. When this happens, you should seek professional help to find the best individualized treatment approach that works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek additional help when you need it.
The approaches listed in this article are meant to promote daily well-being, social connectivity, and physical wellness. We are curious to know whether learning about the vagus nerve and vagal tone is new to you or something that you have come across before. Share your thoughts on this practice below and let us know what other health-related information would interest you!
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla Covert, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist