Your nervous system has been shaped by your past experiences. Periods of chronic stress, a relationship that was unhealthy, marginalisation, financial hardship, a business failing, career burnout, bullying…they can influence your nervous system today. It happens outside of conscious awareness, it’s not something you choose.
If you’ve experienced trauma, your nervous system is going to take you away from feeling at “home” quicker. It’s like an overzealous security guard trying to protect you. It may tell you to leave home because there’s danger, even if you don’t need to. Not being at “home” can take its toll on you emotionally and you may frequently feel anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, angry, flat, or depressed.
It takes a toll on your health and it can lead to gut issues, chronic pain, insomnia, inflammation, autoimmune issues, thyroid problems, and migraines. Not being at “home” where your body gets to rest, repair and recover can lead to chronic illness. It can take a toll on your relationships: you may avoid getting close to people if you don’t feel safe, trusting, and at “home”. The entire human experience changes depending on whether or not you feel at home inside yourself.
Hope lies in knowing that the nervous system is highly adaptable and something that you can change with the right knowledge and tools, even if your past has had periods of adversity. The vegas nerve is the pathway that takes you home to the place of inner security and trust. To the place where your psychological and physical well-being will improve. To the place where you can connect with other people, improving your relationships.
Your capacity for resilience and self-regulation is learnable and recoverable. They’re innate to your brain and nervous system. Staying present under pressure, calming strong fear, responding flexibly when you feel stuck, pausing when you feel reactive, seeing other options when it feels hopeless, preserving when you feel overwhelming doubt: they’re all something you can learn. Imagine the work that’s required at first to create a new clearing in a forest. It can be the same when you shift from reacting in od ways to stress arousal.
There may be some discomfort and you may need to invest time and effort. It takes consistent and intentional practice, but you can develop the neural circuitry that helps you stay more balanced under pressure. These changes require more than insight and understanding. You need to develop autonomic awareness to recognise what state of your nervous system you’ve moved into and create a new physiological experience when you’re under stress. This is how you learn to stay present and engage with your physiology rather than being consumed by it and lost in fight, flight, or freeze.
The neural networks underlying your coping strategies and reactions to stress can be shaped and modified by self-regulation exercises. In time, the new pathways of responding in calmer and less reactive ways to trigger become the track that you walk down as with practice, it becomes the familiar one, Returning to regulation is the essence of resilience.
Some common symptoms of Vagus Nerve dysregulation:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
- Chronic Fatigue
- High or Low Heart Rate
- Difficulty Swallowing
- Insomnia/Trouble Sleeping
- Gastroparesis (AKA Delayed Gastric Emptying)
- Heartburn, Reflux, Gastritis (or GERD)
- B2 Deficiency
- Chronic Inflammation
- Weight Regulations Issues
How to start re-engaging the vagus nerve—it’s easy and fun!
Pick one or two things to begin adding to your daily routine – start simple, and see if stimulating the vagus nerve can become part of your health care habits.
1. Sing loudly! Not a quiet hum, but a full-on top of your lungs good ol’ singalong. I recommend the shower for this one. The muscles in the back of your throat activate the vagus nerve as they move, so sing as loud as possible. Don’t worry about the neighbors.
- Oxytocin, the calming hormone released at birth is also released when we sing.
2. Gargle. You can use regular filtered water for this. Try this in the shower too! Gargle like a small friendly monster.
You want to gargle hard enough that your eyes start to water.
3. Build in some daily prayer and meditation, especially chanting. Try an om or two. It may feel silly or weird at first, but it’s good for your health and wellness, as what vibrates the throat stimulates the vagus nerve.
4. Expose yourself to cold water or air. The vagus nerve is stimulated when the body is exposed to cold. The Sympathetic fight/flight system is down-regulated and the parasympathetic rest/digest system is up-regulated or asked to work more to calm you.
- Try splashing your face with cold water first thing in the morning.
- Turn the shower water as cold as it will go for as long as you can stand it.
- In the winter you can open a window and let the cold in first thing in the morning.
5. Do yoga. Both the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve are stimulated by yoga practice, particularly the sun salutation.
- A study that compared a group of people who walked daily to those doing yoga daily found a significant reduction in anxiety and perceived stress in the yoga group, as well as increases in the mood-improving anti-anxiety brain chemical GABA.
6. Meditate. Meditation and deep breathing stimulate the vagus nerve.
7. Breathe deeply and slowly. There are neurons in both the heart and the neck that contain baroreceptors, or cells that monitor your blood pressure and send signals back and forth with your brain.
- When we take slow, deep belly breaths, we activate the vagus nerve to lower fight or flight and activate our rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system, thus lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and feelings of anxiety.
- On average we take 10-14 breaths per minute – but to stimulate the vagus nerve, try to take only 6 breaths per minute. Breath in deeply, allowing your stomach to expand, then breathe out very slowly.
8. Serotonin and 5HTP. The neurotransmitter chemical serotonin activates the vagus nerve through a variety of different receptors in the brain, gut, and throughout the body. When there is inflammation in the gut, the amount of serotonin made in the brain is reduced via the quinolinate pathway.
- The best way to support optimal brain-body chemistry is to understand what is going on in the gut. We can use advanced functional medicine stool and breath tests to evaluate the gut microbiome to see what may be causing inflammation for you.
9. Add in Prebiotic and Probiotic foods and supplements
10. Exercise. When we move, the digestive system is stimulated, and the peristaltic wave which moves stool through the colon is activated.
- This movement is controlled in part by the vagus nerve, which is also stimulated by exercise, from walking to yoga to CrossFit.
- Try to get some gentle, intentional movement into your life on a daily basis.
11. Acupuncture. Humans have been stimulating the vagus nerve with acupuncture for ages and there are several commonly used points that stimulate improved vagus function. Studies show that auricular or ear acupuncture is particularly stimulating for the vagus nerve.
12. Eat Fish! Studies show that consuming omega 3 fatty acids (like those found in fatty fish like salmon) increases vagal tone and activity and puts us into that calming parasympathetic mode more often. Small fish have fewer heavy metals in them.
13. Get a massage. Massaging different parts of the body, especially the feet or along the carotid sinus, you can do this on your own for free, which can also stimulate the vagus nerve.
14. Try intermittent fasting. Research shows that fasting may increase vagal tone as well.
15. Work with a life coach (an EPIC coach) to learn to manage your mind. Your chronic, habitual negative thoughts about yourself will keep your vagus nerve firing in sympathetic or dorsal shutdown. When you start to look at your thoughts, you can support yourself to find more emotional and mental balance, and thus, balance in your vagus.
Imagine feeling more calm and centered – supporting your vagus nerve is a great place to start!
To your health and wellness,
Melissa Barnhill, Health Coach
EPIC Functional Medicine