I came across an interesting article called “Hacking the Nervous System” by Gaia Vince. The author of the article depicts the experience of a woman who suffered from severe, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, and minimized this inflammation simply by stimulating the vagus nerve.
So, if we are able to stimulate the vagus nerve which works through the parasympathetic nervous system, we can greatly influence inflammation and the immune system.
The role of the brain on body inflammation can be profound. If you suffer from an inflammatory condition, digestive upset, high blood pressure or depression, a closer look at vagal tone is highly recommended.
The vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body which originates in the brain as cranial nerve ten, travels down the from go the neck and then passes around the digestive system, liver, spleen, pancreas, heart and lungs. Its role is the most important one in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘rest and digest’ part (opposite to the sympathetic nervous system which is ‘fight of flight’).
The key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system is the tone of the vagus nerve. It is measured by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate accelerates a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out.
Low vagal tone
Depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, much higher rates of inflammatory conditions such as all autoimmune diseases (inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and others) and cardiovascular conditions and strokes are all associated to low vagal tone.
High vagal tone
On the other hand, improved mood, less anxiety and more stress resilience are associated to high vagal tone. It improves the function of many body systems, reduces migraines, causes reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease and better blood sugar regulation, lower blood pressure and improved digestion via better production of stomach basic and digestive enzymes.
Another interesting property of the high vagal tone is that it essentially reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. It is in this way that the gut microbiome can affect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation.
How to increase vagal tone?
We already mentioned that the vagal tone can be increased through a device that stimulated the vagus nerve. To some degree, you are genetically predisposed to varying levels of vagal tone, but this still doesn’t mean that you can do nothing about it.
In contrary, by regular practice, you too can succeed to regulate and increase your vagal tone. The implications of such simple and basic practices on your overall health, and in particular, on inflammation issues are far-reaching.
Some ways to tone the vagus nerve are the following:
- Washing your face with cold water. Cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve, although the mechanism of this practice is still unknown.
- Meditation (loving kindness meditation) Itwhich promotes positive feelings towards yourself and others. A 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kik found that increasing emotions of goodwill led to increased social closeness, and an improvement in vagal tone.
- Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing from your diaphragm stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
- Speaking. Speaking is also helpful for vagal tone, due to the connection to the vocal cords.
- Balancing the gut microbiome.
- Humming. Humming also stimulates the vagus nerve, due to its connection to the vocal cords. You can repeat the sound ‘OM’ or hum a song.
For those who suffer from high blood pressure, digestive complaints, inflammatory condition or depression, this article can serve as an inspiration to begin a meditation practice, since we have read that breathing exercises and meditation are helpful for our health, or to discover new possibilities and mechanisms to manage the body’s inflammatory response.