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Great Vagal Tone = Happy, Healthy You! Is it too good to be true?

by Emma Lane(more info)

listed in colon health, originally published in issue 248 - August 2018

 

  • Do you want to create better health and balance in your life?
  • Improve your digestion?
  • Be less anxious?
  • Have substantially improved emotional balance?
  • Be able to manage your stress effectively?

I hear a resounding YES!!

You can create the above and more by simply working on improving your vagal tone with easy daily beneficial lifestyle choices. It sounds fantastic and some of you may well be thinking that’s just too good to be true. Hopefully by the end of this article you will see just how important your vagus nerve and its tone is and how easily you can support yourself to create better vagal tone.

Vagus Nerve

Plan of upper portions of glossopharyngeal, vagus, and accessory nerves

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gray791.png

What Exactly is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body.  There are twelve cranial nerves in total, the vagus nerve is also know as the CN X (cranial nerve 10). It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the stomach, small and large intestines, the kidneys, heart and lungs and it contains both motor and sensory fibers.

The vagus nerve has wide distribution throughout the body as it passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen and because this nerve is so long and has so many branches, it was named the “vagus ‘nerve from the Latin word vagus, meaning vagrant wanderer. It has an important job and that is to help regulate a vast array of bodily functions necessary for maintaining your homeostasis.

The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate. So the vagus nerve is very important and as I mentioned above what is really important is the tone of your vagus nerve. The vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve, therefore by increasing your vagal tone it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which means better recovery after stress, which means better digestion, repair of tissues and in general you are much more balanced physically, emotionally and mentally.

Research from 2010, showed a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health, which translates to the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.

Stressed

Today, in general, we live busy lives at high speed which unfortunately means we are in an increased sympathetic state (fight or flight) and many individuals don’t even realize that this is a major factor that is contributing to their poor health. As a society, we seem to think that always being busy equals success. Unfortunately, as yet, very few people have linked that, so generally it also means poor health and often times feeling unhappy. We need to create better balance between our sympathetic (stress) and parasympathetic (relaxed and repair) state ideally spending more time being parasympathetic. This will help create better vagal tone.

Lower (poor) vagal tone is linked to a number of health challenges:

  • Digestive problems such as slow transit time or irritable bowel syndrome that causes constipation;
  • Low stomach acid secretion;
  • Poor satiety or sense of relaxation while eating;
  • Poor absorption of B12 ;
  • Low or slow bile acid production;
  • Negative effects on the adrenals;
  • Difficulty meditating;
  • Anxiety;
  • Higher blood pressure;
  • Poor glucose control;
  • Poor heart rate variability and greater risk of heart disease.

me time

Don’t worry, there are many things you can do to support and improve your vagus nerve and tone. Here are a few suggestions

  1. Enjoy singing or chanting - The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Therefore, singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve and this has been shown to increase heart rate variability and vagal tone;
  2. Get regular movement and exercise – as it stimulates the vagus nerve, which may explain why exercising creates beneficial brain and mental health effects;
  3. Make sure you have good social interactions and social connection – as researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions; 
  4. Laugh loud and often- laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability and improve mood. Interestingly vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect;
  5. Cold exposure - acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. Having a cold shower may not be top of your vagal toning choices but finishing your shower with 60 seconds of cold water blasting is proven to be good for you;
  6. Deep slow breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve.  Take around 6 breaths over the course of a minute. You should breathe in deeply to your diaphragm, your stomach will expand outward when you do this, and your exhale should be long and slow. This is essential to stimulate the vagus nerve and be in a state of relaxation;
          a. A great tool to use is a biofeedback device that assists you in pacing your breathing called
             Emwave 2 available from the Heartmath Institute;
  7. Take up tai chi - tai chi has been shown to increase heart rate variability, and researchers think this means it can enhance vagal modulation;
  8. Utilize a decent probiotic – there is a great deal of research emerging that link gut bacteria to improved brain function by affecting the vagus nerve.  In one study, mice were given the probiotic Lactobillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety like behavior. The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood; 
  9. Fasting - research shows that fasting increases heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone; A good way to get the benefits of fasting is simply by eating your evening meal between 6-7pm, and then not eating anything after that, until the next morning when you eat your breakfast after 7am. That will give you about 12 hours of fasting time.
  10. Take up yoga - studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents”, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers have also found that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve;
  11. Try acupuncture - research shows that ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, increases vagal activity and vagal tone, and can help treat neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation”;
  12. Eat oily fish regularly or take a clean omega 3 fatty acid supplement - researchers have discovered that omega -3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity, as well as reducing heart rate and increasing heart rate variability;
  13. Meditate daily - research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation. “OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve.
healthy mind

Conclusion

So as you can see, there are many activities and lifestyle choices you can easily adapt into your day to day life that will increase your vagal tone and therefore support your health on all fronts mentally, emotionally and physically.

Just remember when your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other. Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). A great tool to use is a biofeedback device called Emwave 2 available from the Heartmath Institute.

The majority of the above suggestions won’t take up too much time or cost you a penny however you will receive substantial reward for your time and effort if you decide to support and increase your vagal tone. Please take a little time to think about how you can introduce and implement on a regular basis, your chosen health supporters from the list above.

Enjoy your journey to better health

Further Information

Good omega 3 and probiotic products relevant products are available at https://www.holisticsonline.com/gastrointestinal/probiotics     https://www.holisticsonline.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=1_71

References

Bonaz, B. “Vagal tone: effects on sensitivity, motility, and inflammation.” Neurogastroenterology & motility 28 no. 4 :455-62. 2016.

Tyaqi, A., et al. “Yoga and heart rate variability: A comprehensive review of the literature.” International journal of yoga 9, no. 2  97-113. 2016.

Cardiovascular and Respiratory Effect of Yogic Slow Breathing in the Yoga Beginner: What Is the Best Approach? Heather Mason, Matteo Vandoni, Giacomo deBarbieri, Erwan Codrons, Veena Ugargol, and Luciano Bernardi. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2013. Volume 2013, Article ID 743504, 7; Published 22 March 2013.

Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Björn Vickhoff, Helge Malmgren, Rickard Åström, Gunnar Nyberg, Seth-Reino Ekström, Mathias Engwall, Johan Snygg, Michael Nilsson, Rebecka Jörnsten. Front Psychol. 2013; 4: 334. Published online Jul 9 2013. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334. PMCID: PMC3705176.

Vagal nerve regulation is essential for the increase in gastric motility in response to mild exercise. Wang Y1, Kondo T, Suzukamo Y, Oouchida Y, Izumi S. Pubmed. 2:155-63. Published online Oct 22 2010.  PMID: 20948179. 2010.

He, X., et al. “Novel strategies and underlying protective mechanisms of modulation of vagal activity in cardiovascular diseases.” British Journal of Pharmacology 172 no. 23: 5489-500. 2015.

Effect of laughter yoga on mood and heart rate variability in patients awaiting organ transplantation: a pilot study. Dolgoff-Kaspar R1, Baldwin A, Johnson MS, Edling N, Sethi GK. Pubmed. (5):61-6. Published online 2012 sept-oct PMID: 22894892. 2012.

Changes in Autonomic Variables Following Two Meditative States Described in Yoga Texts. Shirley Telles, Bhat Ramachandra Raghavendra, Kalkuni Visweswaraiah Naveen, Nandi Krishnamurthy Manjunath, Sanjay Kumar, Pailoor Subramanya. J Altern Complement Med. 19(1): 35–42. doi: 10.1089/acm.2011.0282. PMCID: PMC3546358. Jan 2013.

Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting alter spectral measures of heart rate and blood pressure variability in rats. Mager DE1, Wan R, Brown M, Cheng A, Wareski P, Abernethy DR, Mattson MP. FASEB J. 20(6):631-7. Apr 2006.

Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Bangalore G Kalyani, Ganesan Venkatasubramanian, Rashmi Arasappa, Naren P Rao, Sunil V Kalmady, Rishikesh V Behere, Hariprasad Rao, Mandapati K Vasudev, Bangalore N Gangadhar. Int J Yoga.; 4(1): 3–6. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.78171. PMCID: PMC3099099. Jan-Jun 2011.

Changes in Autonomic Variables Following Two Meditative States Described in Yoga Texts. Shirley Telles, Bhat Ramachandra Raghavendra, Kalkuni Visweswaraiah Naveen, Nandi Krishnamurthy Manjunath, Sanjay Kumar, Pailoor Subramanya. J Altern Complement Med. 19(1): 35–42. doi: 10.1089/acm.2011.0282. PMCID: PMC3546358. Jan 2013.

Yoga and heart rate variability: A comprehensive review of the literature. Anupama Tyagi, Marc Cohen. Int J Yoga. 9(2): 97–113. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.183712. PMCID: PMC4959333. Jul-Dec 2016.

http://www.bu.edu/news/2012/03/07/researchers-find-yoga-helps-ease-stress-related-medical-and-psychological-conditions/

Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever, Gretchen Cuda. NPR article December 6th 2010.

Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Mäkinen TM1, Mäntysaari M, Pääkkönen T, Jokelainen J, Palinkas LA, Hassi J, Leppäluoto J, Tahvanainen K, Rintamäki H. Pubmed. 79(9):875-82. Published online 2008 sept. PMID: 18785356. 2008.

The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Marilia Carabotti, Annunziata Scirocco, Maria Antonietta Maselli, Carola Severi. Ann Gastroenterol. 2015 Apr-Jun; 28(2): 203–209. Correction in: Ann Gastroenterol. 29(2): 240.  PMCID: PMC4367209. Apr-Jun 2016.

Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Bravo JA, Forsythe P, Chew MV, Escaravage E, Savignac HM, Dinan TG, Bienenstock J, Cryan JF. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.108(38):16050-5.  Epub 2011 Aug 29. PMID:21876150. Sep 20 2011.

Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone  Bethany E. Kok, Kimberly A. Coffey, Michael A. Cohn. Volume: 24 issue: 7, page(s): 1123-1132.  Article first published online: May 6, 2013; Issue published: July 1, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) and Treatment of Depression: To the Brainstem and Beyond. John P. O'Reardon, Pilar Cristancho, Andrew D. Peshek. Psychiatry (Edgmont) 3(5): 54–63. Published online 2006 May. PMCID: PMC2990624. May 2006.

Role of the vagus nerve in the development and treatment of diet‐induced obesity. Guillaume de Lartigue J Physiol. 594(20): 5791–5815. Published online 2016 May 29. doi: 10.1113/JP271538. PMCID: PMC5063945. Oct 15 2016.

Acute cold exposure induces vagally mediated Fos expression in gastric myenteric neurons in conscious rats. Yuan PQ1, Taché Y, Miampamba M, Yang H. Pubmed. 281(2):G560-8. Published online Aug  2001. 2001

Auricular Acupuncture and Vagal Regulation. Wei He, Xiaoyu Wang, Hong Shi, Hongyan Shang, Liang Li, Xianghong Jing, and Bing Zhu. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2012, Article ID 786839, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2012/786839

Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Heart Rate Variability. Jeppe Hagstrup Christensen Front Physiol. 2: 84. Published online Nov 16 2011. Prepublished online 2011 Oct 4. doi:  10.3389/fphys.2011.00084. 2011.

Parasympathetic nervous system activity predicts mood repair use and its effectiveness among adolescents with and without histories of major depression. Ilya Yaroslavsky, Jonathan Rottenberg, Lauren M. Bylsma, J. Richard Jennings, Charles George, Ildikó Baji, István Benák, Roberta Dochnal, Kitti Halas, Krisztina Kapornai, J Abnorm Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC Published online 2016 Mar 7. doi: 10.1037/abn0000149. PMCID: PMC5025532. Apr 1 2017.

Could Vagus Nerve Stimulation Target Hippocampal Hyperactivity to Improve Cognition in Schizophrenia? Jason Smucny, Adrienne Visani, Jason R. Tregellas. Front Psychiatry. 6: 43. Published online 2015 Mar 24. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00043. PMCID: PMC4371554. 2015.

Rosenburg S, Accessing the Healing power of the Vagus Nerve, North Atlantic Books, California, ISBN 978-1-62317-024-0. 2017.

Comments:

  1. Mrs Marion Eaton said..

    Thank you for a fascinating article, Emma. Love the illustrations


  2. beatriz favieri said..

    Very interesting! Thanks!


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About Emma Lane

Emma Lane ND Dip NT CMTA C.H.E.K IV HLC3 PEA RSA has more than 29 years’ experience in the industry, working as a Naturopath, Naturopathic Nutritionist and Functional Medicine Practitioner. Emma has two busy practices in the north of England and central London and is also the founder and director of Integrative Health Education and PCI Europe. Emma regularly lectures around the world and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with other practitioners. She works closely with Dr Omar Amin, a world-renowned professor of parasitology. Emma is qualified to practise across a wide range of natural health sciences including Naturopathy, Naturopathic Nutrition, Functional Medicine, Neuro-linguistic Programming, Timeline Therapy, Hypnotherapy, Auricular Acupuncture, Functional Corrective Exercise, Sound Therapy and Energy Healing. For further information please contact Emma via https://www.energizemindbody.com; Lane Wellness group - http://lanewellnessgroup.co.uk

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