What does the vagus nerve do?
The vagus nerve helps regulate all of our major bodily functions, from our breath to our brain. It helps us to respond with dynamism to the challenges of life, is a key player in the gut-brain axis, and some studies have even shown that increasing vagal tone could be helpful in treating addiction and certain cravings.
Ancient yogis knew the secrets of the vagus nerve, likely referring to it as sushumna nadi. In antiquity, when modern medical technology was not available, yogis would tap into sushumna nadi, or their vagus nerve, by sitting in the lotus posture and deeply immersing themselves in the experience of samadhi: a state of perpetual bliss, harmony, and feelings of oneness.
Why does it matter?
The vagus nerve is also known as the "wandering nerve" due to the fact that it snakes from the base of the brain throughout the body and touches the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. The vagus nerve influences your face, neck, ears, tongue, and even your vocal cords. Any effect felt by the vagus nerve is felt throughout the entire body.
Our nervous system functions around the balance and harmony of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), associated with the "fight-or-flight" response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), associated with "rest-and-digest" response. When these two parts of our nervous system work in harmony, they support and facilitate physical, mental, and emotional health. The vagus nerve is a bridge between our two systems, and it seems to explain how our minds control our bodies and how our bodies influence our minds.
Because of its connection to our health and well-being, the vagus nerve has been a recent hot topic in the medical community. Low vagal tone is associated with inflammation, poor emotional and attentional regulation, depression, feelings of isolation, anxiety, panic attacks, gastroparesis, tinnitus, weight gain and obesity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), abnormally slow heart rate, B12 deficiency, and even seizures and can even be used as a measurement for a person's sensitivity to stress. A healthy vagal tone, on the other hand, is associated with the opposite: better immunity, positive emotions, resilience, and psychological balance.
It has been observed that the chaotic pace of modern life, chronic stress, and unresolved trauma excites the SNS and disturb the balance between the two nervous systems. The vagus nerve has an inhibitory influence on SNS activity and a stimulating effect on the PNS. Incorporating practices that stimulate the vagus nerve has a calming and healing effect on both your body and mind.
In my own studies on health and wellness, I realized that the daily routine that I've been following for years has a positive impact on the health of my vagus nerve. If you suspect you might have poor vagus nerve tone, here are five of my favorite ways to help stimulate it naturally:
1. I refresh myself with cold water.
One of the first things I do when I rise in the morning is splash cold water on my face. Ancient yogis who lived in the Himalayas bathed in cold water to increase the flow of prana (the vital energy of life) in the body. Studies show that cold habituation and cold bathing lower sympathetic activation and cause a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity. There are numerous benefits of bathing in cold water. In fact, every time I splash cold water on my face, I feel refreshed and energetic.
2. I chant my OMs.
Every morning, I set aside five to 10 minutes to chant, and I find it sets the tone for the rest of my day. Research shows that chanting simple mantras, like OM, stimulates the vagus nerve. Chanting and singing produce slow, regular, and deep respiration. This may also explain the soothing and relaxing effects of kirtan (satsang)—an important element of Bhakti yoga.
3. I stretch, breathe, and meditate.
Next, I roll out my yoga mat and get ready for bliss. A few asanas, pranayama, sudarshan kriya, and a few minutes of meditation can do wonders for how I feel.
Our breath is the most immediate way to harmonize our SNS and PNS. Researchers have found that the practice of rhythmic breathing like three stage ujjayi breath and sudarshan kriya have proved to stimulate the vagus nerve and can be effective tools to help relax, energize, and heal. Studies have also shown that slow, diaphragmatic breathing improves vagal tone.
4. I eat healthy and make sure to get my probiotics.
I eat a plant-based diet that includes plenty of probiotics, such as nuts, fruits, yogurt, buttermilk, whole grains, and legumes. It's becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improves brain function by affecting the vagus nerve through the gut-brain axis, and this, in turn, plays a major role in our brain and behavior. Adding good-quality probiotics to your diet can be healing, not only to your gut but also to your vagus nerve.
5. I laugh whenever I can.
Laughter tends to reduce SNS activity while stimulating PNS activity. One possible explanation for this increased PNS activity is that the diaphragmatic movements induced by laughter help improve the vagal tone. There are plenty of proven benefits when it comes to laughter. Every day, I make it a point to laugh for five to 10 minutes. Try this for 30 days, and see the difference it makes for you.
If you find yourself struggling with any of the symptoms associated with low vagal tone, it may be worthwhile to step outside the box—breathe deeply, laugh a lot, or enjoy a cold shower to support your vagus nerve. Your body and mind will thank you!
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