How To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve To Improve Your Health

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Are you feeling a little out of control? Like you don’t know how to calm yourself down? Have you ever felt stress so deeply that it feels overbearing and like you might be swallowed up into a black hole at any given moment? 

You try so many practices to calm the mind or lessen the grip of that stress, but it still feels like a black cloud hanging over your head. 

So, you turn on some music — sometimes your favorite song and other times a song that feels emotionally strong — and you start to hum. You start to sing. And then it happens…

A break in that black cloud. A lessened grip. You know the stress is still there, but something feels different and a level of relief fills you. 

That relief might be minimal or it might be gigantic. All you know is that there is a shift in how you were feeling.

You are not imagining your relief! The lessening of the stress is all so real and that is because of what you have physically stimulated. What you activated. 

What you might not know is that a simple humming or a singing of your favorite song stimulated a nerve that is critical to help you not only manage your stress, but to also help you boost your immune system, optimize your gut health, balance your blood sugar — along with a slew of other health benefits. 

The Vagus Nerve

Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that moves you into action. It is your fight or flight system and if it detects a threat, real or perceived, it will trigger your fight or flight response. If there isn’t a real threat, and you do not need to activate the sympathetic nervous system, then you lean in and recruit the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part that calms you down. 

The vagus nerve is the most influential nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system. It functions like your body’s natural reset button — playing heavily on both your emotional and physical body. The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, through your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Movement or recruitment of these areas help to stimulate the vagus nerve so it can learn how to be more flexible (vagal tone). Healthy vagal tone can be thought of as an optimal balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system actions that allows you to respond with resilience to the ups and downs of life. Learning how to stimulate your vagus nerve allows you to bring the calm and feel more collected.

Vagal Tone

Chronic stress and unresolved trauma can be a real bummer! Not only do they impact your life deeply, but it can also create a great imbalance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of your nervous system. Because we live in a world that is over-stimulating and activating for the sympathetic nervous system, many of us need access to tools that help us engage the parasympathetic nervous system on a daily basis. 

Like I mentioned, the vagus nerve has a calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system activity. But, it is also important to recognize that individuals with unresolved PTSD or trauma often resort to a primitive expression of the parasympathetic nervous system which can lead to symptoms of fatigue or depression. When left untreated, chronic stress and unresolved PTSD can disrupt your physical, mental, and emotional health. The good news is that practices that focus on stimulating the vagus nerve can help regain balance if you are either keyed up with anxiety or shut down with fatigue.

This is why the tone of the vagus nerve is so significant.  Higher vagal tone is associated with better general health — better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, improved digestion and a reduction in migraines. Most importantly though, it is associated with increased emotional stability, resiliency and longevity, that which helps to balance out every other area of your life. 

Curious what your vagal tone looks like? You can easily measure it at home! Heart rate variability is a way to measure vagal tone. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. The higher the tone, the more efficient you are at relaxing. 

An increase in vagal tone is linked to a reduction in overall inflammation and an increase in emotional health and well-being. Lower vagal tone is associated with mood instability, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, chronic inflammation, and cardiovascular disease. 

Activating Your Vagus Nerve

  • Do yoga, but specifically any yoga practice that stimulates the path of the vagus nerve can have a profound influence on the tone of the vagus nerve.
  • Meditation — especially loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness meditation, and Om chanting increased heart rate variability
  • Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. In studies, ujjayi breathing showed quite effective. This type of slow breathing involved 6 breaths per minute, which would be about 5 seconds per inhale, 5 seconds per exhale.
  • Humming, chanting, or singing — especially emphasizing the long, slow exhalation to stimulate the vocal cords.
  • Thinking positive thoughts of others and increasing social connection — this stimulates the heart center of the vagus nerve.
  • Using cold water. Take a cold shower or splash cold water on your face. You can also achieve the same effect by holding a ziplock bag filled with ice cubes against your face and holding your breath. Or submerge your tongue in cold liquid.
  • Laugh more and laugh out loud!
  • Practice the Valsalva Maneuver — Exhale against a closed airway by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. It increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity thereby stimulating your vagus nerve.
  • Take your probiotic. Cultivating healthy intestinal bacteria improves the mind-gut connection and your vagal tone.
  • Get some mild exercise in — it stimulates gut flow and vagus nerve activation needed to initiate this response.
  • Do some gargling. It activates the vagus nerve by activating the muscles in the back of the throat while exhaling slowly.
  • Get a massage. Neck, foot, and pressure massages may stimulate the vagus nerve, as can gently massaging around the carotid sinus located on the sides of your neck.
  • Get enough zinc. This was shown to increase vagus stimulation and is a common mineral that some people don’t get enough of.
  • Eat more seafood — According to several scientific reviews, omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA increase heart rate variability (HRV) and lower heart rate. HRV is directly linked to vagus nerve stimulation.
  • Engage in prayer and pray out loud.
  • Spend time in nature. Nature is soothing and calms the nervous system, but some studies link sunlight to increasing vagal tone.

Stimulating the vagus nerve stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turns reduces your neurophysiological experience of stress — super important for optimal health and wellness. It reduces your heart rate and blood pressure, influences the limbic system in your brain (where emotions are processed), and stimulates digestion so your body can absorb the nutrients you are giving it. Start practicing the art of stimulating your vagus nerve to relieve anxiety, depression, tension and the general sense of unease when stress builds up. 

Try to practice daily as a preventive measure to ensure greater emotional resilience and improved health!

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7 Ways To Boost Your Immune System

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Life can feel super scary.

It is filled with times and periods where it feels like you need to wear a suit of armor to make it through in one piece — illnesses, stress, environmental toxins, global pandemics — it can be a shock to your system.

At any given moment, you could find yourself in the middle of a stress-ridden situation. If you are not prepared and taking care of yourself, you can easily find yourself coming down with the sniffles or caught up in bed quicker than you can say the word Kleenex. 

It all comes down to that one little system within you that can make or break how you physically respond to these life invaders. Well, it’s not so little…

The immune system. 

Your immune system is a beautiful array of complexities and intertwining functions. And as miraculous as the innate functioning of your immune system is, it can be tricky to fully understand if you are keeping it strong. 

Lucky for you, you are an amazing being just like your immune system — Physical barriers such as your skin, mucous membranes, nasal cavities, and lungs work with an internal army that determines how strong, or not your immune system is. Working together, they keep us safe. 

When you were a little baby, you entered this world with an immature immune system. As you were provided the means to build up that immune system, you began to encounter natural bacterias and viruses, gradually maturing and strengthening your response. Super cool, right? It’s like a workout for your immunity. 

And as you were getting stronger, a complex range of immune cells put on their little army hats and stand guard, waiting to attack foreign organisms and allowing antibodies to create an immune response. This builds up your immunity and protects you — just in case you encounter the same virus in the future. 

With all this building and strengthening going on, you got your own little internal immune highway being built, creating hubs of activity at your lymph nodes and glands, such as the thymus, spleen, and tonsils. 

You are probably wondering what you can do to boost your immune system and keep you at your healthiest. Here are 7 ways you can protect and support this amazing system:

1. Get a little dirty. Our immune system develops when when we are exposed to bugs and bacterias. Play in the dirt, get your hands into the garden, or allow yourself to get a little grubby outside. And, if you pull a vegetable straight out of your garden, don’t freak out totally if there is a little dirt on it when you bite into it. 

2. Strengthen your gut flora. About 70% of your immune cells live in your gut. The stronger the gut bacteria that you have built up, the more it can crowd out the unhealthy bacteria and not allow it to hang out on your gut lining and populate. That is crowd control at it’s finest. To encourage good bacteria in your gut, you need a balance between prebiotic and probiotic foods. Eat plenty of fibrous and prebiotic foods such as bananas, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, and flax seeds. Make sure to have fermented foods in your diet to help build up the good bacteria — sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, yogurt, etc. You can also take a high quality, live probiotic to help repopulate the gut flora. 

3. Put down the sugar. It has been connected that sugar can significantly reduce the ability of white blood cells to destroy pathogens. Not only does this greatly impair your immune system functioning, but glucose also is so structurally similar to vitamin C that it can compete with vitamin C uptake in the body. Bad news for your immune system! 

4. Stay strong in immune boosting nutrients. 

  • Vitamin A enhances white blood cell function, antibody response, and thymus function. It is also essential for the health of the skin and mucosal barriers. Try foods such as eggs, cod liver oil, orange and yellow veggies and fruits, broccoli, spinach, dark leafy greens.
  • B6, B12, and folic acid helps to decrease stress response and they help to boost immune function and immune response. Try foods such as peas, bananas, nuts, whole grains, liver, eggs, beef, legumes, salmon, leafy greens.
  • Vitamin C enhances white blood cell response. Try foods such as oranges, peppers, strawberries, broccoli, brussel sprouts.
  • Vitamin E is important for cell-mediated and antibody related immunity. Try foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, broccoli. 
  • Zinc helps to destroy foreign particles. Try foods such as oysters, red meat, nuts, beans, whole grains, seeds, legumes, eggs, shellfish. 

5. Enjoy some moderate exercise. Moving your body is awesome for the lymphatic system, but too much can actually depress your immunity. Don’t overdo it and allow your body to balance out play and rest. 

6. Look at your medications. Medications for autoimmune disorders, cancer, HIV or disorders with chronic inflammation like asthma, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis can also depress the immune system and weaken the body’s ability to fight against invaders.

7. Laugh it up (and other stress relieving activities). There is something called natural killer cells that live within you. Don’t worry — they are a good thing! There has been much connection between laughter and the activation of the natural killer cells. Stress depresses the immune system. Engaging in laughter or any other stress relieving activity will help to strength your immune system and keep those sniffles away. 

Your immune system is like your home — when you keep it clean and you fix the problems that could cause a breakdown in the foundation and walls of your home, you are better protected from the outdoor exposure. 

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