The vagus nerve networks around the body like a super spy, reporting back to the brain secretly (subconsciously) on what’s going on in the body as part of our protective stress response, noticing facial expressions, and responding to people’s voices and monitoring our internal organs.
Doctors understanding of vagal nerve activation in the unconscious fight, flight freeze, or fainting response in differing situations, was advanced by the work of Dr Stephen Porges who established the Polyvagal Theory. His work offers exciting developments in how we can become more resilient to the stressors of 21C life. Dr Porges identified how branches of the vagus nerve calm the body, but they do so in different ways. The previous post explained how and why vagus nerve problems can become detrimental to our health and wellbeing (the vagus nerve, explained) and why we need our vagal nerve to be well toned, just like our muscles.
Building resilience by helping your vagus nerve.
Most people have heard of the gut-brain axis; the microorganisms in our digestive system that communicate with our brain. Scientists discovered that the vagus nerve continuously monitors the gut microbiome for pathogens organisms and inflammation which cause pain and the ability to control stress levels.
Tip: Boost digestive health by eating pre-biotic foods including bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke. Alternatively, taking a probiotic supplement may be helpful.
Studies show that people who meditate regularly have greater resilience to stress, and better vagal tone too. Meditation and mindfulness practice is now widespread and used in clinical setting to treat a wide range of condition from IBS, depression and chronic pain.
Tip: The breathing exercise in the previous post is a useful starting point (the vagus nerve, explained)
Studies have shown that getting the whole body cold has been successfully used to the treat some depressive and anxiety disorders. Literally chilling out is useful for the vagus nerve, as it slows the activation of sympathetic (fight-or-flight response) nervous system.
Tip: Splashing your face the cold water, taking a cold shower, jumping into your local Lido or any sudden cold exposure will increase vagus nerve activation, stimulating it to help the body adjust to the drop in temperature, and halting the sympathetic nervous system, and increasing parasympathetic system.
Talking, singing, humming and laughing
Just like the sing-song rhythm of speech (prosodic talking), sometimes used to calm and soothe babies. Altering the tone of speech works for adults, too. For example guided meditations apps, often use soft slow rhythmical tones of speaking to coax the listener’s brain into a relaxed state more quickly than a normal conversational tone would achieve.
Tip: With a little self-practice we can train the mind to perceive calm and safety, by choosing cues or trigger words, using visualisations or sound to help create a “secure imagined space” which can encourage feelings of contentment and peace. Imagining or using smell can also be helpful; essential oils, candles or fragrance, sound and music are helpful too.
Prosodic use of the voice is a tool used by some trauma therapists and clinical hypnotherapists which can halt the stress, anxiety, fear responses from kicking in, and train the mind and body to be better able to bounce back from any future episodes of stress.
Medical treatment of the vagus nerve
Just in case this is all sounding a tad new age, NICE (The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) recommends treating the vagus nerve of people with epilepsy and difficult to manage depressive disorders. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) appears to help reset chemical imbalances in the mood centres of the brain and changes brain wave patterns which can reduce or eliminate symptoms. Treatment with VNS involves surgical implantation of a pacemaker-like device in the chest, which via a wire threaded under the skin is connected to the left vagus nerve, and programmed to deliver electric current in continuous cycles to the nerve for a set period. Doctors aren’t entirely sure how stimulation of the vagus nerve alleviates symptoms of depression, but it does seem to help some people.
Image ref: mood-disorders
The vagus nerve and osteopathy
Osteopaths have long recognised a relationship between stress, health and disease, many people visit us with symptoms of low vagal tone or sympathetic overdrive without actually realising it. They report a variety of interconnected problems including pain, anxiety, the inability to relax, acid reflux, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, poor digestion, IBS or low mood.
Following our regular osteopathy health screen and physical examination to check for any mechanical factors which may be irritating the vagus nerve; the neck, jaw and TMJ or shoulders and upper back where tight muscles can constrict it. We would go on to assess the internal organs such as the diaphragm and gut, as they can affect nerve function.
Treatment aims to help patients to find balance or homeostasis in the body. Gentle non-painful osteopathic treatment will re-engage the body’s natural healing process via the parasympathetic nervous system. Which allows the body to improve its management of blood pressure, better regulate heart rate, suppress inflammation, boost the immune system and reduce pain.
Many patients report the wellness benefits of treatment of gentle and non-direct osteopathic techniques known as “cranial” this include relaxation, better quality sleep, improved ability cope with stress and restored resilience. Supporting people to wellness has been a fundamental aspect of osteopaths work for over 100 years.
The vagus nerve and vagal tone have considerable benefits for every major organ in the body and many aspects of health. Whether you are booking in for treatment, spending a few minutes yelping in a cold shower or learning some simple relaxation or meditation techniques there are many ways to help the vagus nerve improve your health and wellbeing.