Live a better life by hacking your vagus nerve! In this article I’ll be explaining why this little nerve is not only key to your wellbeing, but has a pivotal role in your decision-making.
But before I get there, let’s go back and do just a little bit of biology, because for any hack you need to understand how things work first. So it’s geek alert time, because we need to talk about your autonomic nervous system.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is an integral part of the human body as it monitors and regulates the visceral organs—heart, lungs, liver, gall bladder, stomach, intestines, kidneys, and sexual organs. Problems with any of these organs can arise from dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system.
It is also the part of our bodies that deals with stress. Whatever the stress is that we experience – not sleeping enough, poor diet, or toxic relationships… that stress is translated into hormones that directly affect the function of our organs.
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” mode… well this is a great state for escaping from predators, but it’s not a healthy state to be in for more than a few minutes. Research has even shown that our IQ is reduced, and we are less creative when in this stress mode.
So when we are in this stress mode, our thoughts focus on getting away from things that we don’t like. Stressed clients talk to me about what they don’t want – like changing jobs because, moving house, avoiding people. These are all stress responses, and stress is not a good place to come from when making important life and career decisions.
The art of making good decisions
When it comes to coaching people, I want them to be in what’s called the “rest and recover” mode, where your body is relaxed, and the creative parts of your brain are fully engaged. If you want to learn more about how the brain operates under stress, have a look at the video in the description.
A key part of this “rest and recover” mode is controlled by the vagus nerve. This nerve is the longest nerve in the body which originates in the brain and travels down the neck and then connects to the digestive system, liver, spleen, pancreas, heart and lungs. It has a special role in reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure and balancing the hormones in our bodies so that we recover from stress quickly, and feel happy and relaxed, ready for the next challenge.
Now the vagus nerve in babies is a finely tuned instrument… it’s how they can go from crying one minute to laughing and being blissfully happy the next. It’s why babies sleep…well like babies.
The Vagus and Heart Rate Variability
But modern living isn’t kind to the vagus, and for many of us, our vagus has lost its lustre. This can actually be measured using what’s called Heart Rate Variability, and you can learn more about Heart Rate Variability in the above video.
Vagal "tone" indicates your wellbeing, resilience and clarity
The health of your vagus is commonly called vagal tone. High vagal tone improves the function of many body systems, causing better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improved digestion via better production of stomach basic and digestive enzymes, and reduced migraines.
Higher vagal tone is also associated with better mood, less anxiety and more stress resilience.
So essentially a healthy vagus is key to being happy, resilient, making good decisions and being healthy.
3 Ways to a healthy Vagus
So how do we get our Vagus back to its original baby state? Here’s three things that research has shown make a big difference:
Temperature therapy is huge in professional sports right now, whether it be ice baths or cryotherapy chambers, because they seem to rev up recovery by improving vagal tone. Some of you might want to ease into it with a cold shower occasionally, but actually you can get a lot of the same benefit just by splashing cold water on your face in the morning and before bed. This activates a primal reflex called the mammalian dive reflex, that is designed to slow our bodies down when diving into water. It’s simple and can have a dramatic effect on your vagus if done regularly.
Using your voice
Ever seen yogi’s chanting OM on TV? Well there’s actually some science behind this, as the vagus runs past your vocal chords and through your lungs, and research shows that not just chanting, but singing, laughing and even gargling activate the vagus nerve and slow you down. So try singing along to your favourite tunes on your way to work after a good long gargle or mouthwash first thing in the morning and see what it does to you.
Of course, we breathe all the time, but our breathing patterns reflect vagal tone. I can tell a lot about a client’s vagal tone by the speed and shallowness of their breath. Learning to breathe slower and deeper can take some time and practice, and for this is recommend the Heartmath Inner Balance, which feeds back to you how your breathing is affecting your heart rate variability.
Alternatively, there is a free breathing pacer below which you can follow on your phone. Do it for a few minutes and you’ll feel your vagus nerve come on.
Measure and try!
So there you go, a quick primer on the importance of the vagus nerve and some of the quicker strategies you can use to improve it. Give them a go and remember to measure your results!
The vagus nerve is a key part of my coaching and is not just about health, but in helping you make better decisions in your life and career.
If you have any questions on the vagus nerve, please leave a comment.
#vagusnerve #vagaltone #stress #resilience #hrv