We just made it through a very stressful election season. So — I wanted to share with you some natural ways to literally “calm your nerves.” It all starts with the vagus nerve, a remarkable nerve responsible for your ability to relax.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It originates in the brain and travels to all parts of the body, visiting all the organs. This wandering pathway exemplifies one of many ways in which the mind connects directly to the body.
It’s also one more reason why, when doctors say “it’s just all in your head,” they’re both right and wrong. Wrong because their meaning implies your symptoms aren’t real, when they really are. And right because everything actually does connect to your head.
Early anatomists who first traced this long nerve’s path gave it the name vagus, which means “wanderer” in ancient Latin. Wandering is also the subject of the earliest known poem in (Old) English, circa 900 AD. It begins and ends, oft him an-haga are’ y-bedith metodes mildse….wadan wraec lastas, wyrde bith full area. “Often the lone dweller abides for mercy… Fate is fully inevitable.” The modern English word “weird” derives from the old English word wyrde for “fate.”
However, your fate may not be inevitable if you learn to take advantage of the wanderer nerve.
Improve your vagal tone to respond better to stress
You can measure the tone of your vagus nerve by tracking heart rate alongside breathing rate. Your heart rate speeds up a little when you breathe in. (Expansion of your chest cavity drops the pressure a bit, which allows more blood return to the heart. The heart, in turn, responds to pump it out.)
Conversely, heart rate slows down a little when you breathe out. (Pressure inside the chest increases, slowing the return of blood flow to the heart, and slowing the heart rate.)
And the bigger the difference between inhalation and exhalation heart rates, the higher your vagal tone — which means that your body can relax faster following stress.
Higher vagal tone improves body functions, causes better regulation of blood sugar, lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack, improves digestion and reduces migraine headaches. Higher vagal tone is also associated with less anxiety and better mood.
Amazingly, the vagus nerve which travels through the GI system, appears capable of “reading” the microbiome. The vagus then modulates inflammation based on whether it detects a disease-causing microbe. The vagus keeps the immune system healthy, stimulating it when the body needs to fight off an infection and reducing it when not needed to avoid chronic inflammation.
As you know, research links chronic inflammation, stress and low vagal tone with cardiovascular diseases, chronic fatigue, cognitive impairment, depression, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Chronic inflammation directly ties to autoimmune diseases — such as arthritis, endometriosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), lupus, thyroid diseases, and more.
Of course, the GI microbiome is also emerging as a key factor in the mind-body connection, stress and relaxation, as well as vagal tone. A population of healthy, probiotic bacteria in the GI tract creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve — increasing vagal tone and relaxing the body.
What else can you do to improve vagal tone?
For years, natural practitioners emphasized the widespread benefits of deep breathing and related influences on the vagus nerve for relaxing the body. Indeed, slow, rhythmic, deep breathing from the diaphragm (not just the top of your lungs) stimulates and tones the vagus. Meditation also promotes relaxation, well-being and improves vagal tone.
Humming stimulates vagal tone as well, since the vagus also connects to the vocal cords. Humming while trying to suppress angry outbursts may be a way of “self-medicating” the vagus to keep the body relaxed. Humming single syllables, such as “OM,” during meditation or yoga also stimulates the vagal relaxation response.
Talking, especially having a pleasant social conversation, has the same effect in addition to the benefits of a pleasant companion.
Cold water also has a mysterious but powerful influence on the vagus nerve. Washing your face with cool water stimulates the vagus nerve. To an extreme extent, submerging the faces of infants in cold water for a few seconds can cause total relaxation to the point of passing out. We see this same reflex in animals, where it is known as the “diving reflex.”
Of course, I also recommend submerging your face in water, blinking your eyes, and blowing through your nostrils as an effective way to eliminate germs and allergens that cause respiratory infections and allergic symptoms. Especially now as cold and flu season gets underway.