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The Vagus Nerve and Stress

the vagus nerve and stress response

The Vagus Nerve and Stress

Experiencing stress is inevitable: commute traffic, relationship trouble, work conflict, sugary foods, EMF exposure, social media… The list goes on. While stressors aren’t always within our control, how the body responds to stress is– to an extent. Your vagus nerve has the ability to alter stress response, positively or negatively. The key is understanding how the vagus nerve works and the best ways to support it.

 

What is Stress?

A lot of people think of stress simply as an emotional worry. But, stress is so much more than that. Stress actually refers to a series of biochemical, hormonal and neurological processes in our body that are designed to help us survive and adapt.

According to the Medical Dictionary, stress is “an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures,” which can be perceived, real, or imaginary. As the name suggests, stress is caused by stressors. And those stressors can be physical, chemical, mental, and emotional. Here are some examples of different types of stress:

        • Physical- Poor posture, repetitive motion, falls, car accidents, lack of movement, over-exercising, lack of sleep, excessive blue light exposure.
        • Chemical- Air pollution, food sensitivities, plastics (like BPA), endocrine disruptors in cosmetics and personal care products, drugs.
        • Mental and Emotional- Work deadlines, relationship tension, insomnia, financial problems, cultural expectations, overworking, lack of purpose.

 

Unfortunately, no one is a stranger to stress. In today’s hustle-and-bustle society, many of us thrive on stress. However, all forms of stress, lead to unwanted physical, mental, and behavioral consequences, like:

        • Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
        • Having difficulty relaxing
        • Lack of sleep
        • Low energy
        • Nervousness
        • Digestive issues
        • Frequent colds
        • Forgetfulness
        • Constant worrying
        • Racing thoughts
        • Being pessimistic
        • Increased use of stimulants
        • Procrastination

 

Stress isn’t inherently bad, it’s actually necessary. However, the issue lies with prolonged bouts of chronic stress.

 

Chronic Stress and Chronic Disease

Episodes of stress need to be balanced with adequate time in rest and recovery. When our mind and body undergo stressful events and don’t allow enough time for recovery, we often begin experiencing decreased function in our mind and body, which ultimately lead to illness and disease. In fact, chronic stress has been linked to many chronic illnesses, such as depression, neurological disease, cancer, heart disease, autoimmunity, and more. 

Many of today’s common stressors are rooted in the 6 Types of Sensitivity. Identifying and understanding these stressors is the best way to manage stress levels. Yet, in many cases, the root causes of stress are out of our control. However, even in uncontrollable situations, we do have the ability to improve our body’s response to stress. Enter: the vagus nerve.

 

The Autonomic Nervous System and Your Vagus Nerve

To understand the integral role of the vagus nerve, it’s important to understand the autonomic nervous system. As its name suggests, the autonomic nervous system works autonomously. In other words, we have almost no control over its functions, such as regulating heart rate, breathing, digestion, etc.

The autonomic nervous system can be divided into two categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Think of these as a light switch. It’s either on or off. You can’t be in sympathetic and parasympathetic mode at the same time. So 

 

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Your Nervous System

The nervous system can be divided into two categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic.

The sympathetic system is your fight-or-flight response also referred to as the stress response.

        • Heart rate accelerates
        • Breathing becomes faster and more shallow
        • Pupils dilate, tunnel vision and selective hearing can occur
        • Mental focus – can lead to overwhlem chronically
        • Blood is shunted away from your core and to your limbs and large muscle groups (to prepare you to fight or run…flight)
        • Stress hormones are released (adrenaline, noradrenaline) 
        • Sweating increases
        • Saliva and digestive enymes decrease, dry mouth
        • Digestion slows (in stomach, liver, gallbladder, intestines)

 

Conversely, the parasympathetic system is responsible for rest-and-digest functions. Also known as “feed and breed”.

        • Heart rate slows
        • Breathing becomes slower and deeper
        • Relaxation and rest occur
        • Sleep is deeper
        • Blood returns to the organs to aid digestion and excretion 
        • Saliva, biles and digestive enymes are released
        • Digestion is stimulated
        • Cellular detox and regeneration can occur

 

Life these days has a way of keeping us in SYMPATHETIC OVERDRIVE – always stressing about something. Intentional activation of the vagus nerve cna help shift us into a parasympathetic state of relaxation and recovery. 

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, connecting the brain to the gut (and other organs). This explains its massive influence on physiological functions, spanning from head-to-toe. Most vagus nerve functions are involuntary, as is the rest of the autonomic nervous system. Despite their independent functions,  the entire vagus nerve is connected. For example, heart rate alters digestion and breathing impacts heart rate. To put it simply, the vagus nerve is a communication pathway that the body and brain use to listen to each other. It’s a fundamental form of MindBody communication.

 

How Your Vagus Nerve Influences Stress Response

Stress activates our fight-or-flight response, keeping us in a sympathetic state until the threat (or stressor) is gone. However, the body cannot recognize the difference between running from a bear or driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic or living through a worldwide pandemic. To the body, stress is stress. 

Trouble arises when we do not (or cannot) maintain a natural balance of stress and recovery. When stress is chronic, the body isn’t able to recover and rest, ultimately impacting the parasympathetic system (rest-and-digest). This leads to dysfunction in digestion, tissue building, detoxification, immunity, etc.

Foundationally, the vagus nerve helps regulate the body’s response to stress. In moments of stress, the activity of the vagus nerve, also known as vagal tone, is instrumental. Vagal tone has the ability to increase (or decrease) the nervous system’s adaptation and response to stressors. High vagal tone allows the body to relax quicker after a bout of stress with minimal impact to autonomic nervous system functions (like breathing and digesting). Most importantly, vagal tone is the one part of the autonomic system that we actually have some voluntary control over. 

 

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How to Support Your Vagus Nerve

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Arielle Schwartz, said, “By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.” Through various mind-body techniques, you can strengthen vagal tone and work with your nervous system during times of stress:

Hands-On Healing

Hands-on care, like a belly massage, whole-body massage, chiropractic care, or foot reflexology, decreases the body’s fight-or-flight response while encouraging healthy vagal tone. 

Acupuncture

Acupuncture can be especially helpful in addressing cognitive and behavioral symptoms. It’s even been shown to improve digestion and respiratory rate.

Cold Showers

Cold showers, or exposure to cold water, on a daily basis can work wonders for the vagus nerve. It’s also been shown to improve immunity and decrease inflammation. If you have Hashimoto’s or a thyroid condition, start by splashing your face with cold water and work your way up to lukewarm or cold showers for ~30 seconds.

Humming

Humming and singing regularly has been shown to increase vagal tone by influencing breathing and heart rate. Alternatively, gargling warm water can have a similar effect. 

Laughing

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: laughter really is the best medicine. Laughter increases heart rate variability and naturally increases happy hormones in the body.

Daily Movement

In addition to many other health benefits, regular exercise has been proven to stimulate vagus nerve activity, resulting in cognitive benefits

 

Your vagus nerve is greatly responsible for how the body responds to stress. These practical tools will help exercise and grow your vagal tone to encourage a healthy stress response. As a result, the parasympathetic system can operate optimally, leading to increased overall health. 

In some cases, overcoming stress and improving the health of the vagus nerve requires in-depth healing. To learn more about how you can strengthen your vagus nerve, register for my Club Sensitive membership!

I created Club Sensitive – a mindbodyspirit space for sensitive people to feel at home. In Club Sensitive, you learn practical tools to help you thrive in the company of kindred spirits. Join now!

Dr. Natasha F
[email protected]

Dr. Natasha F is a Doctor, Designer, Speaker and Artist. She specializes in healing autoimmunity through integrative chiropractic, functional neurology, functional medicine, nutrition, homeopathy and narrative medicine.

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