Stress: Nurturing Your Vagus Nerve
How stressed are you? Do you even know?
Stress is invisible and easy to ignore. But it’s pervasive. Most of us have become so used to living relentlessly busy lives – with time pressures, constant demands, rushed social interactions, hurried eating – that we don’t even notice how stressed we are. It has become our new normal.
(Just as a quick bit of fun you can take this test to find out how stressed you are. Please note this is NOT replacement for going to see a doctor or counsellor, should you feel the need!)
In a previous post I wrote about the vagus nerve, and how in our stressed society the body releases the fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These build up in our bodies with potentially disastrous effects on our health.
Stress also stimulates our appetites in an unhealthy way, making us more likely to choose what we call “comfort food”: high-calorie, high-fat food that promotes metabolic disease because it causes us to store calories in the visceral area and liver. And that stored fat is at the core of many chronic diseases, not just diabetes.
I mentioned before how we can stimulate our vagus nerve in order to regulate our stress levels and reduce the risk of our bodies being overwhelmed not just by high levels of cortisol but also an insatiable appetite for food that is bad for us. If you’re a practising yogi, the good news is that it’s more than likely you’ll be doing this on a regular basis without even realising.
- Slow, diaphragmatic, rhythmic breathing making sure your exhale is longer than your inhale will stimulate your vagus nerve.
- By chanting or practising Brahmari (Humming or Bee Breath), the sounds will resonate in the roof of the mouth and back of the throat where the vagus nerve starts its passage.
But not everyone practises yoga, and there are other ways of regulating the vagus nerve.
- Compassionate mindfulness practice and meditation: simply meditating isn’t enough to regulate vagal tone – studies show that a change only occurs with those who practise positive emotion.
- Positive social connections: Those who have higher vagal tone tend to be better at regulating their emotions. This lead to positive emotions, which then boost perceived positive social connections. This in turn increases vagal tone thereby creating an “upward spiral”. It’s great to know that a daily diet of positivity has a beneficial physical effect!
- Applying a cold washcloth to the face: The vagus nerve activates the mammalian dive reflex which slows your heart rate to conserve oxygen.
- Singing: Like chanting, the sound will resonate in the back of your throat and roof of your mouth.
- Probiotics: We know that the vagus nerve plays a major role in the gut-brain axis, but gut microorganisms can also activate the vagus nerve.
Research has shown that the more you activate your vagus nerve, the more you benefit. Tests indicate that by activating it regularly you can recover more quickly from stressful situations than you might otherwise. This in turn means fewer stress hormones coursing through your body. In other words, the more you practise, the more responsive it is. A win-win situation.
I know yoga isn’t for everyone (although I can’t think why), so it’s great to know that there are plenty of alternative ways for you to regulate your vagus nerve.
I hope I’ve persuaded you how important it is to nurture your vagus nerve. The only question is: which method appeals?