I read an article yesterday that really fascinated me because of all its implications. The article is titled “Hack the Nervous System” by Gaia Vince.
In the article, the author describes the experience of a woman who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis and the treatment was done by using a device that minimizes inflammation by simply stimulating the vagus nerve. This means that by activating the vagus nerve, which acts under the parasympathetic nervous system, we can influence to a large extent on the inflammation and the immune system. The role of brain inflammation on the body can be huge. If you suffer from digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression or any inflammatory state, be sure to read the following information. Let me explain the possible consequences step by step.
What’s the Vagus Nerve?
First, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body: it has its origin in the brain and goes down to the neck and then passes around the digestive system, liver, spleen, pancreas, heart and lungs. This nerve has major importance in the parasympathetic nervous system, which has the function of “rest and digest” (unlike the sympathetic nervous system which has the function of “fight or flight”).
The tone of the vagus nerve affects the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by monitoring your heart rate in relation to your breathing rhythm. Your heart rate increases slightly as you inhale, and slows down when you exhale. The greater the difference between your heart rate when inhaling and the heart rate as you exhale, your vagal tone is higher. A high vagal tone means your body can relax more quickly from stress.
What is High Vagal Tone?
A high vagal tone improves the function of several body systems, resulting in better glycemic control, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, better digestion through better production of basic and digestive enzymes in the stomach and fewer headaches. A high vagal tone is associated with better mood, less anxiety and better stress resistance. One of the most interesting roles of the vagus nerve is that it decrypts the intestinal microbiota and sends a response to modulate inflammation whether it detects pathogenic organisms or not. Thus the intestinal microbiota can affect your mood, stress levels and inflammation in general.
What is Low Vagal Tone?
Low vagal tone is associated with cardiovascular problems and stroke, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive disorders, and a much higher frequency of inflammatory conditions. Inflammatory conditions include all autoimmune diseases (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, endometriosis, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune thyroid disease, and many others).
How to Increase the Vagal Tone?
In the article mentioned above, vagal tone was increased by a device that stimulated the vagus nerve. The good news is that you can stimulate it yourself, but it requires some practice. To some extent, you are genetically predisposed to various levels of vagal tone, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot change it. Here are some ways to raise the tone the vagus nerve:
- Humming. Because the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum a song or even better yet, repeat the “OM” sound
- Slow, rhythmic breathing with the diaphragm. Breathe from the diaphragm rather than superficially from the top of the lungs, it will stimulate and tone your vagus nerve.
- Wash your face with cold water. The mechanism behind it is still not known, but cold water on the face stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Speak. Similarly, talking provides assistance to the vagal nerve because of its connection to the vocal cords.
- Balance the intestinal microbiota. The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop by the vagus nerve, which increases its tone.
- Meditation, especially a meditation of love and kindness that promotes benevolent feelings toward yourself and toward others. A 2010 study by Bethany Kik and Barbara Fredrickson has found that increasing positive emotions leads to increased social proximity, and improved the vagal tone.
The consequences of these simple practices to your health in general and in particular on inflammation are significant. If you suffer from digestive disorders, inflammatory disease, depression or high blood pressure it is expressly recommended to take care of the vagal tone. We know for years that breathing exercises and meditation are useful for our health, but it is so fascinating to learn the mechanism by which they act. I hope this short article has inspired you to begin the practice of meditation as it inspired me to do it myself, and also to continue to seek other ways to manage inflammatory responses of the body.