Essentially, we’re stepping outside of the reductionist ‘diet plus exercise equals health’ paradigm and focusing on left-of-centre hacks to alter our biochemistry, physiology, mood and outlook.
Last week we touched on the idea that there’s a whole range of fun pastimes that we can indulge in to help us achieve our health goals from a different angle. Things like rest, pleasure and human connection.
This week we’re exploring the role of the vagus nerve, why it’s central to feeling good and how understanding its structure and function opens up even more exciting ways to improve our health.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body and is so named because it wanders like a vagabond from the brain, all over the body, wrapping around every organ along the way. It controls our parasympathetic nervous system and can be thought of as a major highway between our mind and body, sending sensory information to and from the brain.
Via the vagus nerve, we’re constantly reacting to various signals in our environment in ways that either relax or alarm the body. This is essentially the precursor to our emotional state, which then triggers our behaviour. The vagus nerve is the reason your hackles rise and stomach turns when you sense a threat and why you feel instantly relaxed when you smell your mother’s cooking.
Neglect the vagus nerve at your peril
Given that it oversees a vast range of important functions, a poorly functioning vagus nerve has been associated with a long list of conditions, such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders, low stress tolerance, brain fog and cognitive impairment including dementia, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders and cardiovascular conditions like stroke.
The research in this field has been able to validate the importance of the mind-body connection. A few decades ago, the idea that ‘thinking happy thoughts’ could be a genuine health strategy would have seemed laughable. Now the latest science offers a very rational and architectural explanation for why our thoughts, senses and emotions are among the most critical aspects to consider and manage when it comes to looking after our health.
In all comes down to vagal tone
Vagal tone refers to how well-functioning or ‘toned’ the vagus nerve is. The better our vagal tone, the easier we’re able to get ourselves into a state of calm.
There’s effectively a positive feedback loop between good physical and emotional health and strong vagal tone. It goes both ways: taking care of your physical and emotional health helps to tone the vagus nerve and engaging in activities that strengthen the vagus nerve improves our physical and emotional health.
Stimulating the vagus nerve
Now we get to the fun part. There’s a vast range of enjoyable strategies to improve vagal tone by stimulating the vagus nerve. And anything that stimulates the vagus nerve switches off the destructive yet occasionally useful ‘fight or flight’ response and facilitates a rapid shift into ‘rest and digest’ mode, known as parasympathetic dominance. Remember from last week, we really should be in this state the large majority of the time and yet so few of us actually are.
Vagus nerve stimulation has a lengthy list of physiological benefits, including improved digestion, sleep, neural plasticity and memory, and lowering inflammation, blood pressure, insulin resistance and stress hormones.
Accessible zones for stimulation
Whilst the vagus nerve wraps around every organ in the body, it also opens into many parts of the face. And therefore, when we talk about stimulating the vagus nerve for improved health and an effective jolt back into parasympathetic dominance, we can do this by accessing it in this region.
The nerve travels behind the eyeballs and ears, around the throat muscles and vocal cords, along the hard and soft palate in the mouth and into the tongue.
So, things like gargling, chanting, singing, humming, laughter – or even splashing the face with cold water – are effective ways to tone the vagus nerve.
Other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, include things like:
• Deep breathing
• Meditation and prayer
• Yoga, Tai Chi and weight training
• Good nutrition
Many of these practices have multiple mechanisms in terms of improving our health – the truth is, we don’t need to know how or why they work, merely that they do.
Singing releases endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and reduces stress hormones, depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. Music has been shown to enhance the immune system, accelerate the metabolism, reduce pain and improve healing and recovery time.
We’ve touched on the benefits of laughter in this column before and they’re along similar lines – a radical boost in immunity (thanks to increased Natural Killer cell function), improvements in memory, creativity and cognitive function and so much more.
In a nutshell, virtually any pastime that makes you feel good is having a significant impact on your health by improving vagal tone. Isn’t that a refreshing way to approach your health regime?!
Human connection and feelings of awe
To give some more examples, new research has shown that even micro-moments of rewarding human connection have a stimulating effect on the vagus nerve.
One study concluded that “genuine wholehearted micro-moments of social connectedness between two individuals appeared to instantaneously trigger a parasympathetic response that improved vagal tone for both parties involved”.
Another study, that “positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward-spiral dynamic.”
Even the feeling of awe has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. When was the last time you could say you were awe-struck?
Isn’t it fascinating to discover that anything that inspires a state of awe – and it could be a broad spectrum of stimuli, such as enjoying a good sunrise or a breath-taking piece of art or music – can improve our health via its effect on the vagus nerve?
So, for those of you who recently made health-focused new year’s resolutions that revolved around diet and exercise, you might want to consider tweaking them.