If you follow my social media you’ll notice I talk a lot about the vagus nerve and why it is so important. The vagus nerve controls so much in your body that I’m really passionate about ensuring it has what is called high tone.
The vagus nerve is a part of the parasympathic nervous system. Starts in the brainstem, and travels down the neck throughout the body to a bunch of vital organs. Vagus is Latin for ‘wandering’, and this nerve does exactly that! The task of the vagus nerve is to create connections between the brain and the digestive tract, lungs, heart, spleen, liver and kidneys. It is involved in speech, swallowing, eye contact, facial expressions and the ability to tune into other people’s voices. A big part of the vagus nerve’s job is to tell the brain what is happening in your organs. Another big part of the vagus nerve is to calm the body after a stressful moment, ie take your body out of fight or flight.
What affects Vagal Tone?
In practice, I commonly see three things that impact vagal tone.
1. The first is the TMJ (or jaw). When the jaw isn’t aligned, it aggravates the trigeminal nerve. The fibres of the trigeminal nerve connect with the fibres of the vagus nerve inside the brain, meaning when the trigeminal nerve is overstimulated it also impacts the vagus nerve. They kind of work like a seesaw - the trigeminal nerve is associated with the sympathetic nervous system, and the vagus nerve is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system. Generally speaking, when one goes up, the other goes down. Chronic stimulation of the TMJ into the trigeminal nucleus is linked to high sympathetic tone in the body and nervous system, which lowers vagal tone.
2. The second is dietary reactions. Consider the gut inflammation associated with dietary reactions, as well as the possibility of a leaky gut. Any inflammation has the potential to affect nerves in the area, particularly the vagus nerve given it is sensory and takes information from the gut to the brain.
3. The third and final one is stress! Hands up if you’re NOT stressed! Chronic stress is the chronic disease of this modern age, and the cause of so many other health conditions. Cortisol (stress hormone), especially when high for prolonged periods, has the ability to reduce vagal tone.
It seems to be catch 22 – once your vagal tone starts to reduce, you’re less tolerant to stress, to foods, and to pain in general. So you might have noticed that with time you’re becoming more and more sensitive to foods, or that your stress tolerance has reduced significantly. Maybe your vagal tone is lowered?
6 Ways to Stimulate your Vagus Nerve
There are ways to naturally stimulate your vagus nerve, which will increase your vagal tone.
1. TMJ Treatment
If you experience any jaw pain, or have had extensive dental work, there’s a possibility you have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD). Having this assessed and managed will take a load of the pain receptors in the trigeminal nerve, thereby automatically improving the ability of the vagus nerve to function.
2. Remove irritating foods and improving gut health
Supporting your gut health will typically have an anti-inflammatory effect on the vagus nerve. When the digestive system is healthy, the vagus nerve can function at its optimum. Start with a high fibre diet full of whole foods, and remove processed foods (the ones with lots of ingredients you have never heard of, or number additives!). This kind of diet will support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut, which reduces inflammation. Who knows, you may stop bloating too.
3. Continuous Deep Breathing
Continuous deep breathing is effective at increasing your parasympathetic tone, which activates your vagus nerve to help calm your nervous system. Begin with lying on your back, breathing deep into your belly for a count of 5, then breathing out for another count of 5. There are many ways to breathe, there are even courses on breathing…but if you’re looking for something easy and effective, try the 5 in/5 out for 5 minutes and see how you feel.
Methods to stimulate your vagal tone at home
If you’re looking for more ways to activate your vagus nerve at home, make sure you read these next few sentences first. The following vagus nerve exercises are fabulous at increasing vagal tone. However they are purely a bandaid solution, if you haven’t taken the steps to reduce the stressor that is lowering your vagal tone in the first place. Whether it is poor diet, or microbiome imbalances, or chronic work or life stress, or even a chronic TMJ issue that you haven’t resolved. Whatever the trigger, it is always best to treat the root cause rather than put a bandaid over it (even if it is a natural bandaid!)
Splash cold water over your face
This is effective at reducing the pain receptor sensitivity in the trigeminal nerve, allowing the vagus nerve to function. Splash water as cold as you can tolerate on your face 3 times a day as a start. Yep, it’s true, you don’t have to have cold showers or ice baths to improve your vagal tone (unless you want to, of course).
Gargling is a quick and easy way to stimulate your vagus nerve. To make sure you’re truly gargling, push the water as far back in your throat as you can, and start your gargling there. You will feel like you’re going to gag and that is the point. Gagging, while unpleasant, is another good way to stimulate your vagus nerve.
Singing is a beautiful way to stimulate your vagal tone. Jump in the car, put the music up loud and sing away. When you sing, make sure you sing loudly and naturally.
Have you tried any of these natural ways to stimulate your vagus nerve? Did any of them help you feel calmer, or more focused?
Author: Dr Carrie Rigoni
Dr Carrie is a chiropractor from Perth, WA, and is passionate about optimising the vagus nerve and setting our next generation up not only for healthy thriving bodies, but brains, immune systems, and stress resilience too.
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