The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS plays a part in our stress response by controlling functions, including increasing breathing and heart rate, and increasing blood flow, essentially preparing us for perceived danger. The PNS prepares are body for rest by slowing heart rate, breathing and blood flow, and increasing digestion.
One of the nerves of the PNS is the vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves, and is a major channel for initiating the relaxation response. If the vagus nerve is working as it should, this is called high vagal tone, and if it is not working well this considered low vagal tone. So, if you are easily stressed, and have trouble calming down after a stressful experience, it is very likely you have a low vagal tone.
When you consider one the functions of the vagus nerve is to switch inflammation on and off, having a low vagal tone can lead to chronic inflammation, and with it a lower quality of health. Chronic inflammation is linked to numerous physical and mental health conditions, including alzheimers, chronic fatigue, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease, to name a few.
If you feel you may have low vagal tone, or it could be improved, what can you do about it?
Here are some exercises and therapies that could help to stimulate the vegus nerve for better function. In this case stimulate really means to modulate (effect the tone) of the nerve and bring it into balance within the autonomic nervous system.
Relax the tongue
This one I love, as it’s so simple, and can be used anywhere.
Interestingly the tongue is part of the SNS and PNS so is like a bridge between the two, allowing us to trigger the relaxation response, which I’m sure we could all do with at times.
When we’re stressed or tense our tongues will be rigid, and/or pressed up against the roof of our mouths. When we are relaxed our tongues will be lying flat on the floor of our mouths.
So, start by consciously relaxing your tongue so it lays flat on the floor of your mouth, and really focus on your tongue becoming more relaxed. This has a physiological calming effect on the rest of your body by sending a signal to the ANS that you are not under threat or in danger.
At this point I also like to add in some slow, deep breathing in and out to really complete the chill out exercise.
You may like to try thinking of an event that would normally make you angry or upset, and find that you are unable to work up the same emotion or feelings around the event, as long as you keep your tongue relaxed.
Making music is one of the best brain-boosting activities. It’s one of the few things you can do that activates every known part of the brain.
Stimulating the vagus nerve may be one of the ways music delivers these benefits.
If you like to sing in the shower, you can double up your vagal stimulation by finishing off with a blast of cold water. Even splashing your face with cold water will provide vague nerve stimulation, if you’re not into cold shower bursts!
Certain kinds of meditation, such as the loving-kindness meditation, have been found to effectively stimulate the vagus nerve. Although it is thought this is more about the happiness of the person, helped by meditation, rather than the act of meditation itself.
One study found that simply meditating did not automatically help in toning the vagus nerve. This occurred only in those who felt happier and more connected to others from their meditations.
Yoga and Tai Chi
Although any moderate exercises, such as walking, can stimulate the vegus nerve, Yoga and Tai Chi are two that seem particularly beneficial due to how they increase PNS activity.
Bowen Therapy, Acupuncture, Reflexology could all increase vagal tone from their involvement with acupressure points relating to the vegus nerve. Bowen Therapy also influences cranial nerves and the PNS ro reduce stress.
One thing I know, if you trying any of these exercises or therapies you'll be feeling better for it,