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  • Writer's picturePeter Koopmans

The Vagus nerve: The ace up your sleeve to battle stress

The current Coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of us in one way or another and many of us have experienced increased amounts of stress in various areas of our lives.

As it affects our mental and physical health, it is important to find ways to manage our stress. Luckily there are techniques that can help us manage stress, boost our immune system, decrease pain, and regulate our response to stressors.

Have you ever heard of “fight or flight?”… It’s something we inherited from our paleolithic ancestors, when they had to fight or flee sabretooth tigers. When we experience sudden, high stress, our body responds in a similar way, but in our everyday experience of stress, there is no place to run or hide, and as most of us do not meet tigers in the street, the stressful situation is not one that can easily be fought off.

When we experience stress over prolonged periods of time (chronic high stress), our body stays in a high gear, with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol kicking around. This creates wear and tear on the body and mind, and over time can create a multitude of health problems such as chronic pains, anxiety, mood swings, gut inflammation and even weight gain.

There is good news though because we have a superpower that can assist with decreasing our fight or flight response; the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve system acts to counterbalance the fight or flight system and can trigger a relaxation (rest and relax) response in our body. It is one of the cranial nerves that connect the brain to the body and by stimulating it we can receive powerful health benefits.

One of the main ways that you can stimulate the healthy function of the vagus nerve is through deep, slow belly breathing. You can learn to use breathing exercises to shift your focus away from stress or pain. The human mind processes one thing at a time. If you focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you're not focused on the stressor.

Here is how it works. The moment we anticipate stress in any form, most of us tend to stop breathing and hold our breath. Breath holding activates the fight/flight/freeze response; it tends to increase the sensation of pain, stiffness, anxiety, or fear. To practice deep breathing inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth remember to:

  • Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute).

  • Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale.

  • Exhale (6 sec) longer than you inhale (4 sec). It’s the exhale that triggers the relaxation response.

There is a very simple (and free) App for this, called RespiRelax+. It comes with an audio and visual cue and you can enter and modify your breathing sequence in its settings.

Additional techniques for stimulating the vagus nerve include:

  • Eating in a relaxed state and chewing your food well: Not having your meal in a stressful environment and the simple act of chewing your food, activates the stomach to release acid, taste buds to taste the foods well, bile production in the liver and release from the gall bladder, digestive enzyme release from the pancreas and gut motility which are all mediated by the vagus nerve. It is important to sequence your digestion correctly and your body will do this automatically IF you start the process correctly. You must take the time to chew your food to the point that it is soft and mushy in your

  • Loud gargling with water or loud singing activates our vocal cords which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve.

  • (Foot) massage: gentle or firm touch can assist in stimulation the vagus nerve.

  • Cold showers or cold water face immersion: Any acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve stimulation. If you are only brave enough to do your face then immerse your forehead eyes and at least 2/3 of both cheeks into cold water. This elicits the vagus nerve, decreasing heart rate, stimulating the intestines and turns on the immune system

  • Yoga: Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that improves digestion, blood flow, lung capacity and function.

  • Meditation: There are two different types of meditation that have been shown to increase vagal tone including Loving-Kindness meditation as well as Guided Mindfulness Meditation. These have been measured by heart rate variability (Reference). It has also been shown that the chanting of “Om” stimulates the vagus nerve.

  • Probiotics: Your gut is connected to your brain, and one of the most clear connections is through the Vagus nerve. Within our gut, we have a population of normal and good bacteria and yeast called the Microbiome. These organisms have a direct effect on our brains as a significant percentage of our neurotransmitters including Serotonin, GABA and Dopamine are produced through actions of these bacteria helping to break down our foods. Often times we have less good bacteria and more bad bacteria within this population leading to poor neurochemistry and decreased vagal tone. Probiotics are a good option to help promote the good bacteria and other organisms while helping to crowd out the bad bacteria, parasites and yeast.

  • Light Exercise: Mild exercise has been shown to stimulate gut flow and gastric motility (peristalsis) which is mediated by the vagus nerve. This in turn means that mild low level exercise can stimulate the vagus nerve.

  • Fasting: Intermittent fasting helps to increase high frequency heart rate variability in animals, which is a marker of vagal tone. When you fast, part of the decrease in metabolism is mediated by the vagus nerve as it detects a decline in blood glucose levels and a decrease of mechanical and chemical stimuli from the gut.

  • Laughter: having a good laugh lifts your mood, boosts your immune system and stimulates the vagus nerve.

We don’t always have to let stressful situations negatively impact our minds and bodies. We have the ability and tools to stimulate our vagus nerve and send a message to our bodies that it’s time to rest and relax, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, pain management, health, wellbeing and resilience.

Happy breathing, chewing, laughing, gargling, fasting and meditating !

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