While no one will argue the importance of building strong muscle tone, what might be more important to your health is the tone of a surprisingly complex nerve bundle that stretches its tendrils from your brain stem to your visceral organs: the vagus nerve. It also holds a secret to your health far more complex than your muscles; improving vagal tone can boost your immune system, reduce inflammation, help you recover more quickly from exercise and injury and even affect your mood.
The vagus nerve is the captain of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). New research published in Cerebrum journal has revealed that it’s also likely the missing link to understanding and reducing chronic inflammation such as we see in Rheumatoid Arthritis, IBS and other inflammatory illnesses, but it also affects everyday health. However, not everyone’s “vagal tone” is created equal. Those with stronger or higher vagal tone can relax faster after stress, are less prone to inflammation in the body, and have better prognoses for recovery after illness or injury.
6 Strategies for “Pumping Up” Your Vagus Nerve
1. Abdominal Breathing: When you breathe deep into your belly, the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which has a calming and relaxing effect on the body, and is shown to reduce inflammation by blocking inflammatory molecules such as cytokines and Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) in the body. Ideally, holding your breath for seven counts and releasing it for eight, is even more likely to help stimulate the release of this natural calming agent, and to keep your vagus nerve stimulated.
2. “Positive thinking” Meditations: Thinking kindly or lovingly on others improved vagal tone as well as overall positive feelings and greater sense of “social connectedness” according to a study done by psychologists Bethany Kok, Barbara Fredericksen, et al of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Fredrickson also performed a study in which subjects watch movies that produced positive feelings—waddling penguins for joy; trees and streams to elicit serenity—and found these helped the subjects to think more “broadly,” which likely had evolutionary advantages. Her “Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions” states that positive thinking is literally good for your health.
3. Balance Your Gut Microbiome: Research shows balancing microbial health in the gut may reduce inflammation. The gut speaks directly to the brain via the vagus nerve; thus when the microbiome is in balance—more positive than negative bacteria present—your vagus nerve sends more positive signals to the brain. And more regular stimulation of the vagus nerve keeps the nerve fibers firing and able to communicate with all of the organ systems it stretches between.
4. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: You might think of the vagus nerve as the crew that comes in to sweep up and calm down your parasympathetic nervous system after a major event of fight, flight, or simply stress. Thus, it’s no major surprise mindfulness based stress reduction, developed by doctor and Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn, a form of moment-by-moment form of meditation, strengthens your vagus nerve’s ability to slow your breathing and heart rate. Rather than sitting quietly, as in traditional meditation, this form is also more accessible to anyone—to achieve it, you simply focus on what is happening at any moment, without judgment or anticipation of the future.
5. Biofeedback: For some people, however, meditation can be challenging, and positive thinking not intuitive. In this case, you might try biofeedback, usually available through doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists, in which you wear a heart rate monitor and engage in activities that stimulate heart rate and stress levels, while consciously working to either raise or lower your heart rate. Biofeedback can actually teach you to activate and control your vagus nerve signals and heart rate.
6. Losing weight (if you’re overweight): Vagal tone is determined by measuring what is known as “heart rate variability”—tracking how fast your heart beats during given activities, and how quickly it recovers to normal functioning. People who are overweight tend to have low vagal tone, as added weight often stresses the heart and the digestive system, both which take strong cues from the vagus nerve. Thus, if you are overweight by medical standards, you may find your vagal tone strengthens with a healthy weight loss program. Incidentally, regular exercise, which helps with weight loss, also strengthens vagal tone.
Whether you undertake a concerted effort to improve your vagal tone, or you simply sit and breathe, it’s helpful to know you have some control over this small but mighty key to your health.