Many of us were taught that a “toned” body was a healthy body and that spending hours working out our muscles was the way to get there. But what if the most important area in our body to tone is not muscle surface at all, but rather an aspect of our nervous system? What if larger health is connected to something called Vagal Tone? Let’s find out how this might be true, and what we can do with that knowledge. First, we’ll start with nerves.
An Overview of the Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve is the 10th of 12 cranial nerves that originate from your brain to parts of your body. Nearly all 12 cranial nerves have functions limited to one’s head and perform sensory roles like sight, hearing, taste, smell, and moving the muscles of the face. But that 10th cranial nerve, the Vagus or pneumogastric nerve, is quite special. Our vagus nerve is of the utmost importance to our wellbeing.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, winding all through the core of our body to receive and deliver messages for our autonomic nervous system (more on that in a moment). Even the name hints at the scope of this nerve: the word vagus in Latin means “wanderer” and is the source of words like vagrant or vagabond.
The Vagus nerve is uniquely significant, linking key bodily systems in ways that we are just beginning to understand, appreciate, and manipulate. It controls activities like your heart rate, blood pressure, stress response, digestion, and so much more. The vagus nerve connects your “resting” nervous system, sending signals to every organ of the body. Signals traveling up and down this nerve can make you feel calm or can activate stress hormones throughout your body. Which outcome happens depends on the situation—and you.
Here’s an amazing story about the vagus nerve: its existence was known to anatomists for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until 100 years ago that it was discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve would actually SLOW your heart rate. Previously, the heart was thought to operate automatically based on how hard the body was working, not from the signaling of a nerve that doesn’t even touch heart muscle. All of a sudden, it seemed like we might be able to have some influence over the bodily functions previously thought to be only automatic.
It’s been 100 years, and much more has been learned about the connection between the vagus nerve and crucial organ systems like your digestive tract. You might have heard of your body’s “fight or flight” response—that’s the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system. The “rest and digest” part is the other half of the autonomic nervous system, and it is called the parasympathetic branch, with the vagus nerve front and center.
With this one (huge) nerve in charge of telling our bodies when it is time to rest and digest, it’s no wonder that 90% of the signals in your vagus nerve travel FROM your gut to your brain. Not the other way around. The vagus nerve’s role is primarily to sense what is happening, rather than just delivering instructions from the brain. It’s pretty amazing, actually. Here are a few examples of manifestations of the vagus nerve’s activity:
A Few Ways the Vagus Nerve Influences Major Body Systems
- Controlling inflammation: when the presence of inflammatory triggers are detected, the vagus nerve sends a signal to the brain to start releasing anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters.
- Memory storage: stimulation of the vagus nerve (increasing vagal tone) can help to solidify long-term memories, by increasing the right chemicals in your brain’s memory center.
- Breath & Beat: both your heart and your lungs respond to the vagus nerve’s activity. You can mimic an automatic process: by deliberately slowing the breath, you are signaling the vagus nerve to slow the heart. Neat!
- Butterflies in your belly: all of those things that we call “gut feelings” are truly the vagus nerve talking to us through the tight brain/belly connection. Butterflies in your stomach from that special person? Definitely the vagus nerve getting all twitterpated. Stomach ache before a social event? Same thing, but unfortunately not a fun outcome.
Knowing what the vagus nerve can DO when it is called upon is interesting, but what happens when the vagus nerve is just “chilling”? When there isn’t much to react to? That’s where the baseline state of the vagus nerve becomes very important.
What is Vagal Tone?
Your baseline vagus nerve state is called Vagal Tone, and it is one of your keys to positive health. How does that work? Think of the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system as a bed. A bed is a good way to get rest and recharge your system. But what if you have a worn-down and weary bed? Not easy to get good sleep. Spend some time creating a GREAT bed with lots of pillows and a firm, long-lasting support structure, and you’re on the train to restville. A higher vagal tone is like a great bed that really helps you get deep rest. When you have a high vagal tone, your “rest and digest” state can bounce back faster after your “fight or flight” has been activated by a stressful event or injury.
There’s an interwoven set of effects and responses between your vagus nerve and the events that happen in your life. When your system is triggered—by bad news, witnessing a disturbing situation, or experiencing trauma—the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system springs into action to take care of you. The actions you take could be running away or engaging in a confrontation, supported by a state of high alertness and readiness inside your body. After the event passes, we should be able to return quickly to our base state of calm when the parasympathetic (rest and digest) system kicks back in.
Sometimes, we cannot return to that baseline of rest and repair. That’s evidence of low vagal tone.
How Vagal Tone is Linked to Anxiety and Trauma Responses
The research into vagal tone and its influence on our wellbeing has grown dramatically in recent years, thanks to the decades of work by researchers and clinicians including Bessel Van der Kolk, Steven Porges, Peter Levine, and more.
What research and experience show is that after a triggering event, it might not be easy for some to return to a “resting” state. This can happen when a person is activated by triggering stimuli over and over. It takes a toll on the entire system and can leave a person with a mild (or not-so-mild) baseline of anxiousness and worry, rather than rest and repair. Vagal tone retreats to a low state that leaves the body unable to properly rest or stop feeling the effects of trauma.
Clearly, this isn’t good, and poor vagal tone is associated with chronic illnesses beyond just feeling “stressed out.” Autoimmune conditions may be connected to lower vagal tone, and more research is being done every year. We are also learning how good vagal tone is connected to many positive body functions. This is great news, as you’ll soon see, because you have a lot of control.
High Vagal Tone Can Heal: Repair and Connection
On the other side of that “stressed-out response”, normal or high vagal tone corresponds to good health and resilience. Like a muscle or that bed analogy, when we take care of our vagal tone, it will support our body’s ability to bounce back from stressors, large and small. Our bodies want to be healthy, and they have many built-in systems to help us get “back online” that should give all of us hope, even if stress seems to be a way of life.
One way that vagal tone works in a positive cycle involves our connection to other people. We are social creatures and good vagal tone seems to be strongly influenced by our connection to those who love and support us.
For example, good vagal tone is a predictor of being able to reconnect with other people after we experience trauma. And it goes both ways—if our vagal tone is on the low side, it can be boosted if we reconnect in a socially healing way soon after an adverse event. There’s a common sentiment in many therapy circles, “what is harmed in relationship can be healed in relationship.”
One major internal system that is strongly tied to a strong vagal tone is our ability to regulate emotions—no small part of daily life! A higher vagal tone in children is correlated to healthy attachment to caregivers and, in kids on the autism spectrum, higher vagal tone correlates to their ability to connect and communicate with others.
What else can we positively nudge with higher vagal tone? The more we learn about the power of our vagal tone, the more tempting it is to answer that question with, “Everything!” Our overall wellbeing—our sense that we are okay, we are connected, we are whole—needs a foundation of internal emotional health and resilience. High vagal tone is where it all begins, and where we can return to. But first, we have to measure it.
How to Measure Vagal Tone
Vagal tone sounds like something we’d all want, but how do we know if ours is healthy? Vagal tone is complicated to measure directly, but we can make some good approximations with a measurement called heart rate variability, or HRV. Your heart does not beat at a steady metronomic pace. In fact, it varies a little bit with every beat. Sometimes it’s slower when you exhale, faster when you inhale, with other little wobbles here and there. It might sound backward, but the more variation in your heart rate, the better. Variability means flexibility—you can react to changes in your body state easily, just like a tree branch can bend in the wind without breaking.
Measuring HRV is simple, thanks to modern technology. Even if we cannot hear the slight shifts in our heart rate, a heart rate monitor with software certainly can. If you are an athlete, you might already have a heart rate monitor chest strap. Combined with the right software, this is the gold standard way to check your HRV, because your heart rate is measured directly through electromagnetic signals. The drawback is that you can only check HRV when the strap is on.
Next, there are fitness wearables that monitor your heart rate nearly 24/7, although most of these use optical detection of your pulse. It’s not as accurate as a chest strap, but it is accurate enough for pretty much all of us. Fitness wearables are available from under $100 to many thousands, depending on the features and extra functions. And you can get them as a wrist strap, an armband, a watch, or even a ring. Choose what works for you and make sure the software can tell you your HRV, at least once a day so you can watch for trends. It’s not necessary to see your HRV in the moment, so don’t worry about that.
Now, you’re probably wondering, can you influence your own vagal tone? Absolutely you can! We know so much more about the vagus nerve than decades earlier, including how to manipulate its activity—for good. Remember the vagus is attuned to 90% receiving information. You can learn methods to deliver new and calming signals to your vagus nerve so it can respond better than ever before.
Activating the vagus nerve
Giving your vagal tone a boost means spending some time deliberately activating your vagus nerve. There are quite a few ways to deliberately give your vagus nerve a nudge, from the simple and calming to the uncomfortably shocking. Let’s start with simple.
The easiest and most accessible way to activate your vagus nerve is through breathwork, both traditional breathing techniques as well as one VERY enjoyable practice. There are many different ways to use your breath to directly tap into the core of your body’s calming capabilities.
Here’s just one, called “6’s”: six breaths per minute, evenly and deeply. By far the most simple kind of breathing to practice—all you need is a timer to count seconds. Breathe in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds, for a total of at least a minute, but several is even better. This gives you 6 breaths per minute and will send strong signals to your body to slow down your heart, calm any anxieties, and slow the release of stress hormones.
Improving your vagal tone
When your goal is to build resilience and increase vagal tone, think of it like training for a marathon: preparation and repetition are key to put your vagus nerve in a responsive state. In the therapeutic modality called Somatic Experiencing, trauma responses can begin healing by creating a safe and resourced state in the body. Once the person has a safe place to return to, the difficult emotions or memories can be “titrated” in. Back and forth, our bodies learn that the trauma is not here, and we can feel safe. Dr. Arielle Schwartz’s page on vagal tone includes a practice for connecting with safety and then engaging the body before coming back again.
Well beyond a gentle means to activate your vagus nerve, there are some dramatic ways to “jump” your vagus nerve and raise your vagal tone over time. One is cold exposure, like fully cold showers or even a dip in a frozen lake or a bathtub full of ice water. You can also stimulate a similar effect by plunging your face into very cold water for as long as you can comfortably hold your breath. (This also requires a lot less water than the cold shower or bathtub!)
In addition to these ways to nudge our vagus nerves into better tone, there is one exciting frontier worth considering: holographic information therapy or HIT. Sometimes known as Quantum Neurology, this is an emergent field that combines the hands-on approach of chiropractic work with visualizations and energy practice to bring the patient’s nervous system back into balance. Often this is used as an intervention to reduce pain or immobility, rather than a general wellness practice. This practice is a common therapy offered at NYCIM, and has proven to be a beneficial tool.
A combination of methods may be right for each person, but starting out with gentle practices is a great way to set off on the road to higher vagal tone. Consulting with a professional such as a therapist is never a bad idea, either.
You Have a Lot of Control With Your Vagal Tone
The best thing to take away from this overview on the vagus nerve and vagal tone is that your body has nearly all the tools it already needs for amazing health. All it requires is curiosity, a new habit or two, and a boldness to move forward.
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*Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products or treatments mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a licensed medical practitioner for medical advice.
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