The vagus (sounds like Vegas) nerve plays a critical role in many areas of your health. It’s the tenth cranial nerve and originates in your brainstem. It goes through your neck and thorax and extends down to your abdomen. It is one of the biggest nerves that connect your brain and gut through a two-way communication system. It sends an extensive range of nerve impulses from the digestive system and specific internal organs (liver, heart, and lungs) to your brain and vice versa.
The vagus nerve plays several important roles in your day to day life including the regulation of internal organ functions including:
- Digestion, heart rate, breathing, vasomotor activities (hormones, blood vessels), and some reflexes such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting
- Regulation of our fight, flight, or freeze actions
- Affects our anxiety levels and ability to handle emotional and physical stressors
So now, what is vagal tone?
Vagal tone is simply a measurement of how well your vagus nerve functions, and it is measured indirectly through heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the amount of time in between heartbeats, which indicates the vagal activity of the heart. There should be variability in the amount of time between heartbeats. Meaning, that the more variable your HRV is, the better your vagal tone, and the less variable it becomes, the weaker is your vagal tone as well. I remember when I first learned about this it was counterintuitive–I thought it made sense that a healthy heart rhythm was one that was very evenly spaced, but that’s not the case! You don’t want a metronomic heartbeat–you want it to be dynamic and flexible.
HRV is also an indicator of fitness recovery because it reflects how well your body is recovering from stress and its ability to balance between the parasympathetic “rest and digest” branch and the sympathetic branch of your nervous system so that you can recover from exercise well.
The right HRV varies from person to person, thus your HRV baseline is individual. There’s no fixed HRV baseline, so a high or low HRV is not the same for everyone (more on this in a moment).
But low vagal tone is associated with the following:
* inflammatory bowel diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease
* neurological conditions (dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc)
* mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and PTSD
* diseases of the heart and blood vessels
How to track your HRV?
There are devices that can track your HRV. One of which is the Oura Ring. It tracks HRV during sleep and helps you find your baseline. I also really like the Inner Balance by the HeartMath Institute which provides HRV and feedback for improving it in the moment.
But the big question is how do you improve your vagal tone?
There’s a method that is already well-researched in improving vagal tone: electrical vagal nerve stimulation. This has been approved by the FDA as a treatment to a few neurological and mental disorders, but since only a medical professional can perform this procedure, it’s not very accessible.
So I have 4 effective ways to improve your vagal tone that are non-invasive and generally good for your health and well-being. Plus you can do them on your own!
- Exercise – High-intensity interval exercise improves vagal tone (and is scientifically supported). However, if you aren’t able to do HIIT for whatever reason, even light exercises can increase your HRV.
- Breathing and Meditation – Improve your vagal tone by adding 10-20 minutes of slow, mindful breathing every day. Do this by consciously breathing out longer than breathing in. When we exhale, our heart rate decreases and this stimulates the vagus nerve. Slow breathing also increases the parasympathetic nervous system (your “rest and digest” branch).
- Diet and Probiotics – Your diet should be nutrient-dense and anti-inflammatory, because everything that is good for your gut and brain is good for your vagus nerve. Probiotics help your gut to heal and maintain a healthy balance of flora, which supports your gut-brain axis (where your vagus nerve plays a big part)
- Cold Water Immersion – Research backs up cold water plunging and cold stimulation of the neck area for improving vagal tone. Cold water immersion is especially good for muscle recovery and improving HRV–which is why it has become popular in athletic communities. If you have poor vagal tone or wish to improve it further, start gradually (i.e. take the last 10-20 seconds of your shower on the coldest setting.)
Whether you use an HRV tracker or track whether your symptoms have improved, I hope you find improvements as you apply these helpful tools.
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