Little Life Hacks: The Vagus Nerve

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The nervous system! What an amazing and complex superhighway within us all! While we may not think of what’s going on underneath the surface, this system delivers information to and throughout the brain and is composed of the brain, brainstem, cranial nerves, spinal nerves, spinal cord and the enteric nerves. There are 12 cranial nerves with pathways on the left and right sides of the body. One specific cranial nerve runs from the brainstem into the chest, abdominal region and controls the primitive organs. It is quite lengthy with many branches and is named from the Latin word vagus which means “wandering”.

This wandering nerve assists in keeping harmony in an assortment of important bodily functions. While this specialized communicator tells the brain what’s going on in your organs, it also helps calm the body after a stressful situation (moves us from fight or flight to rest and digest). We definitely need that in today’s society! When your vagus nerve is working well, you recover more quickly from stress and even illness. If it’s not working optimally, you may experience fatigue, brain fog, anxiousness, low mood, a compromised immune system and even pain.

Let’s look at a few key strategies to stimulate your vagal tone! The following are proven methods to help but it should be mentioned that finding the root cause is desirable. You wouldn’t put electric tape over a warning light in a car so use these to assist but try to find out why your tone is off (ex. overworked, microbiome disharmony, temporomandibular joint dysfunction - TMJD).

  1. Deep Breathing – This technique can be done anywhere. Deep diaphragmatic breathing increases the parasympathetic tone (rest and digest). Invite the breath into the belly and exhale completely. Try this audio.
  2. Gargle – Hard to believe but this simple act can work wonders. Take a sip of water and move it way back to the throat and start gargling. Work your way up to a minute a day.
  3. Cold water – I’ve written about contrast hydrotherapy but the simple act of splashing cold water on your face is effective. It also helps reduce pain receptor sensitivity in the trigeminal nerve. FYI…when the jaw is misaligned (TMJD), it can aggravate this nerve. This nerve connects with fibers of the vagus nerve. When the trigeminal nerve is overstimulated, it can influence the vagus nerve. Everything likes harmony. It’s kind of seesaw effect...when one goes up, the other goes down. Splash cold water on your face 3-4 times a day.
  4. Singing and/or chanting – Both stimulate vagal tone. Find some old 80s music and go for it (at least that’s the excuse I’m using to listen to my favorite hairband music). Yes, chanting OM or anything else in meditation, yoga or on your own can work wonders. This is one of the reasons we feel so good after a mind/body class! Try this short audio to assist.
  5. Essential oils – It wouldn’t be a post if I didn’t say something about essential oils! Topical application can assist the parasympathetic system and help reestablish harmony in the vagus nerve.  Here's a recipe to try.  Get a dark glass bottle used for aromatherapy. Mix 5 drops of clove oil and 12 drops of distilled lime oil (distilled versus pressed in lime is best because it won’t be sensitive to skin in sunlight). Add 20 drops of fractionated coconut oil. Keep in a cool, dark, dry place with lid on tightly. To use, apply a couple of drops behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone on both ears. Apply 2-3 times daily and don’t do so 2 hours prior to sleep time.  Learn more.
Reset Your Vagal Tone with Deep Breathing, Gargling, Cold Water Splash, Singing/Chanting and/or Using an Essential Oil Blend! Click To Tweet

Give yourself a little stress-free love and reduce those cortisol levels! If you’re mind/body aware and wondering if your vagal tone is off, notice if you’ve become more sensitive to your surroundings. Here are a few indicators to question if you’re living more in a fight or flight state. Keep in mind this isn’t diagnostic but simply a “check-in” list.

  • Tooth grinding
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry eyes
  • Racing heart
  • Tense muscles around neck, shoulders
  • Lump in throat/difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty in identifying if full or hungry
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Easily startled
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Anxiousness
  • Depression
  • Dizziness, vertigo, ringing in ears
  • Brain fog
  • Sleep issues
  • Difficulty relaxing

This isn’t an all encompassing list but it may get you thinking. If you still question whether or not your vagal tone is off, no worries. Just try some of these recommended methods. It won’t hurt if you do and notice how you feel afterwards. If it helps, that’s great and just continue. I will proclaim that every single person in the world can benefit from all of these methods but most importantly deep breathing. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is an essential. It provides much needed oxygen in a world of rush and it cleans the blood and simply makes us feel better. Try these 5-minute meditations daily and see what you think.  By adopting these tips, my hope is that you and your vagus nerve will be relaxed, happy and in harmony soon!  

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About Author

Celeste Cooper-Peel, ND, MA, MCHES, CWHC, E-RYT

Wellness & Fitness Manager

Celeste has been in the science, health and wellness field over twenty-five years. She began as a research chemist with a concentration in genetics and nutritional biochemistry. After working in the medical field, she saw the need to follow a path of proactive wellness and prevention. After receiving her Masters in Health Education, she ventured into the mind/body world receiving training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Yoga. Shortly after, she received the 2003 Wellness in the Workplace Award for a large health system in the state of Virginia. In 2004, Celeste joined SAS Institute, Inc. and continues to be passionate in her position overseeing Wellness. She believes curiosity and collaboration bring insight and new ideas which bring out the best in everyone from team members to those who are making healthy lifestyle changes. Believing that the body knows how to heal if given the proper tools, Celeste earned certifications in Aromatherapy and Essential Oils, Classical Chinese Medicine and Homeopathic & Naturopathic Medicine. She earned her Doctor of Naturopathy degree in 2020. Celeste is a published author, wife and mother and practices what she preaches and teaches. She is a nationally recognized Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) and has advanced certificates in Integrative and Functional Nutrition, Genetics and Genomics. She is an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) with the National Yoga Alliance, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Instructor, Certified Wellness and Health Coach (CWHC) and Certified Yoga Therapist (CYT). Follow @ccooperpeel on Twitter and Instagram.

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