Learning to regulate our nervous system is one of the most meaningful things we can do in our lives. The vagus nerve is one of the main nerves in your parasympathetic nervous system, and there are ways to optimize its function for a more relaxed and present you!
We are only as open to the magic of life, feeling good, and connecting with others as our nervous system will allow.
We are living in a time where we can easily be over stimulated, overworked, and in a state of chronic stress.
The Vagus Nerve
It is up to us to do what it takes to bring ourselves into whats called a “ventral vagal” state, which is that parasympathetic dominant state.
So let’s talk a little bit about the vagus nerve-- one of the longest nerves in the body. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that starts at the brainstem and innervates the muscles of the throat, the circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems (which is why when we are anxious/stressed/triggered, we may experience heart palpitations or raised blood pressure, shallow breathing or inability to take a full breath, or stomach problems/inability to digest food!). It is the main constituent of the parasympathetic nervous system.
When we are in a stressed or anxious state, we cannot be curious or empathetic at the same time. We are also unable to access the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function, communication, guiding, and coordinating the functions of the other parts of the brain.
There are three states of our nervous system:
1. Fight or Flight— our survival response from the sympathetic nervous system. This state of high alert triggers a series of reactions within the body that help to send energy and resources to the muscles to prepare to fight or run for our lives. Our blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline levels increase and digestion and immunity decrease at this time.
2. Freeze— this is called a “dorsal vagal” state, our most primitive pattern. We are completely shut down and can feel hopeless, or as if there is no way out. We tend to feel depressed, lack energy, dissociate, feel overwhelmed, and feel like we can’t move forward. Fuel storage and insulin activity increases when our bodies are in this state. This is the farthest state from homeostasis.
3. Rest and Digest— a response of the parasympathetic nervous system, which may also be referred to as a ventral vagal state. It is our state of homeostasis, a safe state. It is only in this state that we can be curious, grounded, mindful, joyful, empathetic, and compassionate. In this state we are more socially engaged, and feel more of a connection with ourselves and the world around us. In this state our digestion is efficient, our body is able to heal and repair damaged and diseased tissues, our immune system is in a state of balance (not over or under-triggered), and our ability to connect is improved.
The human experience is to flow through these states as we move through our lives. It is unrealistic to assume that we could ever remain fully in that ventral vagal state, and aiming to do so will set us up for failure! The beauty of our life experience comes with the contrast of highs and lows.
When it becomes chronic
Most of us have chronically over-activated sympathetic nervous systems and are in danger of health problems if we do not yet have any.
Being under constant stress without the proper tools to cope will have us in the “triggered” states for too long, causing significant emotional/mental disturbance as well as physical consequences. The constant activation of our HPA axis (the grouping of organs/glands connected to our stress response) leads to imbalances in our stress hormones, sex hormones, thyroid hormones, etc. Inflammation will ensue.
No matter how many dietary adjustments we make, how much we exercise, etc. if we are not in our “safe” state, we will be unable to heal. Unable to feel ease in our lives.
If you are someone that feels they have done everything, and still can’t manage to feel good, lose weight, change your mindset, or manifest what you want out of your life, you may be trying to do all of these things while in a state in which your body does not feel safe or at ease. I'm certainly still at this point!
See Where You're At
Bring your awareness to how you feel as you move throughout your day. If you are driving somewhere, for example, you are in your car for a period of time. You know that you have nowhere else to be, yet my bet is that you are not often fully present in the experience. Perhaps you are thinking about something— how is your body responding? I often find myself really tense while driving. The sun is shining, the car is warm, im listening to my favourite music, and yet my body is carrying tension.
The body is always speaking to us, we just need to slow down more often with the intention of tuning into it.
What To Do
Here are some things you can go to tone your vagus nerve and move into that parasympathetic dominant state:
Cold exposure— you can start by finishing your shower with a few seconds of cold water, or go right for a cold plunge! To be honest, I find plunging my body into cold water much easier mentally and physically than finishing a nice warm shower with cold water.
Practice the following exercise, called "The Basic Exercise" by Stanley Rosenburg:
Lie on back
Interweave fingers on both hands and place behind your head at the base of the skull
Without turning your head at all, look to the right as far as your eyes will go
Remain here until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
Return to neutral state with eyes and head straight
Repeat on the other side
Breathwork— sitting or lying for a few moments with your hands on your belly, breathe deeply into the belly and allow it to rise and fall with the breath.
The Diving Reflex— a friend of mine who is a diver actually taught me this one! If you submerge your face in cold water, or splash cold water on your face, your heart rate slows, blood flow to the brain is increased, anger subsides and your body goes into relaxation mode. No wonder diving is so therapeutic to so many people!
Humming, singing, or gargling— if you’ve ever attended one of my yoga classes, chances are you have practiced Brahmari Pranayama, or humming bee breath, with me. To practice this breath you can simply inhale through your nose filing all the way up to the top, and release the breath with a humming sound and a closed mouth. Using your fingers to gently plug your ears while practicing this breath adds another layer of deliciousness to the experience.
You can also sing along to your favourite music, or take the opportunity to gargle with water or salt water for a few seconds during your morning/nighttime brushing routine to tone the vagus nerve.
Probiotics— because the vagus nerve starts in the brain and innervates the gut and digestive system, there is a direct connection between healthy gut bugs and improving brain function by activating the vagus nerve!
Yoga— there is no health condition/part of the body that yoga does not improve in some way. Practicing yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, improves digestion, detoxification, circulation, and more.
Positive affirmations— being brave and pushing through fear and insecurity through positive self-talk or affirmations eventually brings you into a more safe state of being
Connection- connection with others is an integral part of feeling safe and at ease in the world. Be with your people, find your people, love on your people! Your nervous system will thank you for it.
Herbal support— I really love using herbs to support the other work that I am doing in my life, and also to bring intention, ceremony, and beautiful energy into my day. The formulas actually work better when you are practicing healthy lifestyle habits at the same time.
There is a class of herbs called nervines, and two sub-categories of nervines; sedative, and stimulating. Sedative nervines help to literally “calm the nerves”, which naturally helps bring relaxation to the body and get you into the “rest and digest” state. I created a tea formula specifically for this reason, and called it Nourishing Nervine! This is one of my tried-and-true ultimate relaxation tools. The actual herbs work on the nervous system almost immediately, and there’s just something about the ritual of drinking a soothing warm cup of tea that is soothing and grounding.
The other class of nervines, stimulating nervines, are for people who tend more towards lethargy and depression rather than anxiety. People who experience brain fog, or mild cognitive complaints often benefit from these nervines. They provide gentle stimulation while also nourishing and toning nervous tissue.
Two popular stimulants are coffee and green tea. As we know, they give the system that jolt in the morning that many of us need to feel alert and awake. The problem with these, especially coffee, when taken on a daily basis, is that the caffeine is taxing to the adrenals. Caffeine is often overstimulating, and can increase cortisol, our stress hormone, and perpetuate the stress response. Kind of the opposite of the goal when working on getting into that ventral vagal state! Most coffee also contains mold and mycotoxins! Yuck.
To stimulate the body into wakefulness, as well as the added benefit of libido enhancement, I like to recommend my Gin-Zing Capsules. They contain herbs that provide a gentle stimulation, without the adrenal burden that caffeine carries. Just a note that ginsengs can be overly stimulating to people with anxiety, so if you are trying this formula make sure you don’t take it with coffee and see if your body likes it!
Another class of herbs that works on the nervous system are adaptogens. I go into detail on adaptogens in my other blog post about stress, but in short they are herbs that help to increase the body’s resistance to stress.
These herbs, when taken on a continual basis, help to keep the body and mind in a state of calm, despite external circumstances. If you are someone that is easily triggered by things going on around you, and can’t seem to find relaxation, you may benefit from introducing some of these magical beings into your life!
Some of my favourite adaptogens are:
Chaga— Stay Golden Moon Mylk
Mucuna Pruriens— Stay Golden Moon Mylk
Turkey Tail— Adrenal Aid
Adrenal Aid is my newest herbal capsule blend formulated to nourish depleted adrenals. Some of the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are feeling tired upon waking and having energy crashes throughout the day, poor stress response and mood regulation, brain fog or memory issues, salty and sweet cravings, and experiencing an energy burst in the evening time.
I hope that you learned a little bit about the vagus nerve and the different nervous states so that you can become more aware of your state of being as you move through your day and your life.
Once we bring our awareness to something, it begins to change. Do not feel the need to adopt all of these lifestyle and herbal adjustments right away, but take one thing on at a time to let the body adapt.
Sending love to you always