If you’re trying to overcome overwhelm, look no further!
Have you heard of the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the human body that goes from the base of the brain down to the digestive system, attaching itself to organs along the way, such as the heart and lungs. It provides the parasympathetic nervous supply to these organs to control heart rate, respiration, stomach acid production, and proper digestion and absorption of food and nutrients.
Mounting research and recent popularity in the understanding of the vagus nerve on our health is gaining traction, specifically the effect it has on our stress response and the digestive system, giving the name the gut-brain axis. How the brain communicates with the gut and vice versa is reliant on the proper function of the parasympathetic nervous system, best known for its “rest and digest” function.
The counterpart to the parasympathetic is the sympathetic nervous system, famously known as “fight or flight.” As a result of chronic stress, emotional or physical trauma, overstimulation, and feelings of overwhelm and overwork, our nervous system can get stuck in a sympathetic tone. When the sympathetic dominates, our body and mind get stuck in a fight or flight response, and the nervous system thinks it’s unsafe and under continual threat, putting yourself in survival mode over and over again.
When the sympathetic nervous system stays activated, the nervous system supply to the parasympathetic gets shut off, which impairs digestion, causing gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhea, as well as keeping your brain on high alert, causing insomnia, disruptive sleep, and reactionary responses where you feel irritable, on edge and snappy. Over time, this can lead to mood fluctuations, irritability, anxiety and panic.
Stimulating the vagus nerve and bringing your body back to balance is a fundamental and essential part of improving the proper function of our bodies, bringing it back into balance. When you’re in a parasympathetic tone, your body and your brain are in a relaxed state, allowing automatic processes of your body to happen such as tissue repair and recovery, hormone balance, and enzyme production to break down your food. It also lets your brain be calm and receptive to others, allowing you to adapt to your surroundings and environment. This is when your body and mind feel safe, protected and at peace.
5 Ways to Balance Your Vagus Nerve
So how can you exercise your vagus nerve and bring it back to balance? Give these tips a try!
Number One: Humming
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the back of your throat. The vibration created by humming signals the vagus nerve, creating a relaxation response.
Number Two: Practice Deep and Slow Breathing
Diaphragmatic belly breathing for a minimum of five minutes per day is one of the best exercises to activate the vagus nerve, reducing anxiety and improving your stress response.
Number Three: Take a Cold Shower
Acute cold exposure through showers or ice baths increases vagus nerve stimulation, and as your body adapts to the cold, the sympathetic reduce dominance and the parasympathetic increases tone.
Number Four: Meditation
Engaging in meditation lifts your mood, promotes positive emotions and tells your brain that it is safe and therefore no reason to be in fight or flight.
Number Five: Magnesium and Potassium
These two minerals keep the balance of your autonomic nervous system by downregulating sympathetic and upregulating parasympathetic.
In my functional medicine tele-health practice, I get to help people all around the country who are looking for help with countless chronic health conditions, and there most definitely is a common thread – stress. By identifying your individual stressors and stress response, and creating a plan to help your body properly adapt to stress, that’s when resilience and vitality happen.
Chronic stress is the cause of 85% of our modern health conditions and diagnoses. If you think long-term stress is affecting your health, I encourage you to start by practicing one of the vagus nerve exercises and engage a functional medicine doctor to dive deeper into helping your body heal from ongoing stress. Remember, just because something is common does not mean it’s normal.