The Vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve involved in the bidirectional communication between the brain and gastrointestinal tract. The two-way nerve extends from the brainstem, through the neck and down to the abdomen, which is responsible for keeping a number of bodily functions in check, including digestion, heart rate and respiratory rate (1).
If you’ve ever experienced a “gut feeling” or even worse, a “gut reaction”, this is exactly what I’m talking about. This is your brain speaking to your gut, and vice versa. So what does all this mean?
Inflammation is the underlying cause of most chronic illnesses, including eczema. Whilst we require inflammation as an innate healing response, long-term inflammation can cause an imbalance and the body to go into “over drive”. This is where the Vagus nerve comes in, in helping to reduce/prevent internal inflammation (2).
Our bodies are in a constant battle between “fight or flight” (sympathetic nervous system: SNS) and “rest and digest” (parasympathetic nervous system: PNS) due to continuous physical and emotional stressors in our day-to-day lives. Stress in an inevitable part of life, and in some instances, is critical for our survival. However, persistent stress that is not dealt with can lead to a number of health issues.
The Vagus nerve plays a key role in relaxation via its affect on the PNS. The PNS allows our breathing to slow down, the heart rate to decrease, it stimulates digestion and promotes overall relaxation. Stimulation of the Vagus nerve allows the body to adapt to stressful stimulations faster.
My tips to increase your Vagal tone include:
1. Gargling, singing, ‘OM’ chanting and humming all create a vibration at the back of the throat that stimulates the vagus nerve. Think of this as an “awakening” of the nerve. It’s no wonder singing in the car feels so good!
2. Deep/slow belly breathing has been shown to increase the PNS by activating the vagus nerve. Aim to breathe deeply from your diaphragm, expanding your belly outwards with a long and slow outbreath.
3. Cold Water Exposure has been shown to reduce the SNS via activation and stimulation of neurons through the vagus nerve pathway. If you’re uncomfortable with cold water, begin with splashing just your face or using a cold face wash and build your resilience to the experience. Work your way up and try finishing your next shower with 30 seconds of cold water, soon your body may adjust to the temperature change and you’ll be comfortable moving towards the ocean on a cold day or refreshing natural springs.
4. Yoga: studies suggest that yoga practices reduce the stress response via stimulation of the vagus nerve which not only increasing PNS and decreasing SNS activity but additionally, increases gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) an inhibitory neurotransmitter involved in a number of conditions that are exacerbated by stress such as depression, epilepsy, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain (3).
5. Meditation is similar to the breathing techniques, allowing the body to reach a state of relaxation via the increase of vagal tone.
6. Laughing, we know it feels good and when there’s a reason why, it gives us even more motivation to make time for that big belly laugh! Laughing is a similar concept to singing, gargling, humming etc., as it creates a vibration within the body that stimulates the vagus nerve promoting a sense of calm and peace.
7. Listen to music: When you listen to calming music, the vagus nerve is stimulated and a calming and soothing neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released. We recommend listening to our very own Skin Friend Vagus Nerve Wellness and Sleep Well playlist when you are cooking dinner and getting ready for bed.
You can find the Spotify playlist Vagus Nerve Wellness here and the Sleep well one here. If you do not have a Spotify account, you will need to search the app store (on your smart phone) and download the Spotify app. Search "Vagus Nerve" when on the Spotify app and find the playlist by Skin Friend.
Alternatively, if you are on your computer you can sign up to Spotify online here if you haven't already got an account. It's free to listen to.
These are all simple methods we can include into our daily practices to enhance vitality, reduce inflammation and the overall burden of disease. I encourage you to be mindful of your stress reaction, take note of how your body is responding and the messages it may be sending you.
- Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry. doi: 10.3389/2Ffpsyt.2018.00044
- Bonaz, B., Sinniger, V., & Pellissier, S. (2016). Vagal tone: effects on sensitivity, motility, and inflammation. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 28, 455-462. doi: 10.1111/nmo.12817
- Streeter, C, C., Gerbarg, P, L., Saper, R, B., Ciraulo, D, A., & Brown, R, P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric acid and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical Hypotheses, 78, 571-579. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021