First of all… why would you want to stimulate your vagus nerve?
How does feeling happier, improving digestion and reducing inflammation sound like?
When we activate the vagus nerve, we activate a part of our autonomic nervous system — which functions without our conscious awareness — called the parasympathetic system, aka relaxation response, or rest and digest state.
Conversely, the sympathetic system is associated with the fight or flight response, and is activated in times of stress. Stress suppresses vagus nerve activation.
The vagus nerve has also been proposed to play a crucial role in the regulation of the immune response, also referred to as the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. This has huge implications in the treatment of many chronic health diseases involving the immune system, and inflammation!
A poorly functioning vagus nerve has been associated with depression, panic disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, and dementia.
Research indicates that low vagal nerve tone alters the migrating motor complex in the gut, reducing gastrointestinal motility and thus allowing bacteria to flourish in the small intestine.. which can eventually lead to SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). So techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve should be an important part of any SIBO protocol.
GET TO KNOW YOUR VAGUS NERVE
The vagus nerve serves as a communication pathway between the brain and the gut, sometimes referred to as the “brain-gut axis”. Think of it as a bidirectional highway, consisting of efferent fibers (going down to the organs) and afferent fibers (going up to the brain).
Vagus is the latin term for “wandering”. The name alludes to the complexity of connections that the branches of this nerve form within the body.
It is the 10th cranial nerve (Nerve X) and is the body’s longest nerve. It starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears.
It is composed of afferent sensory fibers (about 80%) and efferent motor fibers (about 20%).
The efferent fibers travel down each side of the neck, extending from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. It has an effect on our immune cells, organs and tissues.
However, most of the vagus nerve’s fibers are actually afferent fibers and carries sensory information from the organs back to the brain. Through these afferent fibers, the vagus nerve is able to sense the microbiota metabolites and to transfer this gut information to the central nervous system. This is one of the ways our gut bacteria influence how we feel… fascinating!!
The vagus nerve is a key player in the body-mind connection; it’s behind your gut instinct, the knot in your throat, and the sparkle in your smile.
MEASURING YOUR VAGAL TONE
The strength of your Vagus response is known as your vagal tone and it can be determined by measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the Vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone.
However, it’s important to note that this only measures the heart innervation of the vagus nerve, and so it is not 100% accurate. In other words, high HRV does not necessarily mean that you have no dysfunction in your vagus nerve. It is still a very useful measure though!
There are a few portable devices on the market that can be useful to track your HRV during the day.
This is one of them: http://www.emwave.com.au/emwave_2.html
WHEN YOU INCREASE YOUR VAGAL TONE…
- It increases gut flow/gut motility (aka peristalsis and migrating motor complex).
- It stimulates digestive juices and bile release (hence killer digestion!)
- It keeps your immune system in check (less cold and flu, and potentially less auto-immunity).
- It reduces the inflammation throughout the body, through its role in the anti-inflammatory pathway.
- It has a positive impact on an assortment of ‘happy’ hormones and enzymes such as endorphins, acetylcholine and oxytocin, which bring about positive feelings in the body and reduce the sensation of pain.
- Research indicates that a healthy Vagus nerve is vital in experiencing empathy and fostering social bonding, and it is crucial to our ability to observe, perceive, and make complex decisions. So people with high vagal tone are not just healthier, they’re also socially and psychologically stronger – better able to concentrate and remember things, happier and less likely to be depressed, more empathetic and more likely to have close friendships.
LOW VAGAL TONE & INFLAMMATION
We all know that chronic inflammation has devastating effects on the body and can cause a host of chronic diseases, including digestive diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, autoimmune diseases, etc.
Well, guess what is associated with chronic inflammation: that’s right…low vagal tone.
One of the Vagus nerve’s job is to reset the immune system and switch off the production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive.
VAGUS NERVE STIMULATION & DIGESTION
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) increases gastrin and hydrochloric acid production in the stomach and increases oesophageal/gastric motility = improves digestion and enzyme release.
VNS causes closure of intestinal tight junctions (hence reducing leaky gut symptoms).
VNS stimulate the migrating motor complex, helping in the treatment of SIBO, and perhaps more importantly, prevention of recurrence.
10 WAYS TO STIMULATE YOUR VAGAL TONE
Your Vagus nerve passes through your belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles.
Therefore, practices that change or control the actions of these areas of the body can influence the functioning of the Vagus nerve through the mind-body feedback loop.
1- Singing/ humming/chanting. The Vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibrations of humming is a free and easy way to influence your nervous system states. In yoga, this is often done by chanting the sound “OM”. The bee breath exercise is another way to achieve this.
2- Breathing exercises. Of all the various functions of our autonomic nervous systems, from heartbeat, perspiration, hormonal release, gastrointestinal operation, neurotransmitter secretion, etc., the breath stands alone as the only subsystem the conscious mind can put into ‘manual override’.
Long deep breathing is an excellent way to get out of the fight or flight response.
Here are a few simple breathing techniques you can try, just choose the one that works for you.
- Belly breathing.
- Lengthening the exhale
- Ujjayi breath: You can further stimulate the Vagus nerve by creating a slight constriction at the back of the throat and creating an “hhh”. Breathe like you are trying to fog a mirror to create the feeling in the throat, but keep your mouth close and breathe in and out through your nostrils.
3- Meditation. Meditation, especially loving-kindness meditation which promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others. A 2010 study found that increasing positive emotions led to increased social closeness, and an improvement in vagal tone.
4- Balancing the gut microbiome.
The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the Vagus nerve, increasing its tone.
The Vagus nerve essentially reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. In this way, the gut microbiome can have an effect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation.
5- Diving Reflex. Considered a first-rate Vagus nerve stimulation technique, splashing cold water on your face from your lips to your scalp line stimulates the diving reflex. Ideally, you would want to submerge your face in cold water for about 3 minutes. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body. An additional technique that stimulates the diving reflex is to submerge your tongue in liquid. Drink and hold lukewarm water in your mouth sensing the water with your tongue.
6- Gargling. This technique was made popular by Dr Kharrazian and involves gargling for a few minutes until tears come into your eyes. This can be difficult at first, especially if you have weak vagal tone, so start with a short time and build up slowly. Ideally, you should do the gargling for up to 5 minutes, 3 times per day. It works again by activating the throat area and is described as doing “sprints” for your Vagus nerve.
7- Gagging. Similar to gargling, but this time it involves using a tongue depressor to activate the gag reflex. Repeat 5 to 10 times, 3 times/day. This one is described as doing “push-ups” for your Vagus nerve.
8- Coffee enema. Expanding the bowel increases Vagus nerve activation -and caffeine increases bowel flow if you have a coffee enema. This is especially useful if you try to hold it for as long as possible. This will be difficult at first, especially if you have a weak vagal tone, but it will get easier with time. Coffee enemas can be fantastic for people suffering from constipation.
9- Connections and having fun! Reach out for relationships. Healthy connections to others, whether this occurs in person, over the phone — or even via texts or social media in our modern world— can initiate regulation of our body and mind. Relationships can evoke the spirit of playfulness and creativity or can relax us into a trusting bond into another.
10- Transcutaneous Auricular Vagus Nerve Stimulation, or TaVNS. This is a way to electrically stimulate the vagus nerve via the ear and is probably the most effective overall. This is most easily done using a TENs machine. You can learn how to do this in this video.