Easy, effective stress-busting steps you can begin today
September is here and summer is almost over. School is back in session, and you may be contemplating the return of bad weather and the stress of the upcoming holidays.
But there are steps you can take to reduce and manage your stress today, and year-round, by using your body’s anatomical equipment—specifically, a remarkable nerve called the vagus.
The vagus connects the brain to the heart, lungs, GI system, and other important organs. It’s a key part of the autonomic (or reflex) nervous system, which influences breathing, heart, and digestive functions—and ultimately mood and mental health.
Basically, the vagus is the “rest and digest” nerve responsible for the body’s relaxation response. And that’s why keeping this nerve properly toned is essential for ensuring your health…and happiness.
You can accomplish this state by following a few simple steps. I’ll discuss them in a moment, but first let’s take a closer look at the mind-body connection—and how the vagus nerve is a vital component.
Anatomical proof that everything is connected
Over the past few years, I’ve reported about remarkable new discoveries involving the anatomical connections wiring the brain and the body together, including the circulatory and immune systems.
When we talk about the mind-body connection, it’s not just a figure of speech—it’s a physical, anatomic reality. These connections are why a disease in one organ is invariably a systemic illness that involves the whole body). That’s also what our super sub-specialized practice of mainstream medicine today is so wanting.
But long before these new discoveries about how the mind and body are connected, there was clear anatomic evidence hiding in plain sight.
The wanderer nerve
There are 12 nerves that travel directly from the brain to other parts of the body. The mnemonic device in medical school for remembering the first letters of these nerves in order went like this: “On Old Olympus Towering Top A Finn and German Viewed Some Hops.” (There was also a vulgar version about the vagus that I have actually never seen committed to writing, so I won’t do it now.)
The vagus is the 10th and longest of these 12 nerves. Vagus comes from the Latin word for “wanderer” (which also gives us the modern English term “vagrant”). This wanderer nerve spans throughout the entire body and is connected to just about everything inside you.
The “wanderer” nerve is the key to keeping you relaxed and stress-free. But in order to accomplish this relaxed state, you have to keep your vagus toned.
Watch your tone
Vagal tone is an internal biological balancing process that relaxes the nervous system. Increasing your vagal tone means you can relax faster after a stressful event. In fact, the more you improve your vagal tone, the more your mental and physical health expands.
In Chinese medicine, this vagal tone balancing process is reflected in the concept of the yin and the yang—originally from the sunny and the shady sides of a mountain. The yang is sunny, active, forceful; the yin is shaded, relaxed, retiring.
As in all things in life, it’s important to have the right tone, including vagal tone. And it begins early in life. Studies show vagal tone is passed on from mother to child.1 Mothers who are anxious, angry, or depressed during pregnancy have lower vagal tone. Newborns of these mothers also have low vagal tone, along with low levels of the key “feel-good” neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.
This reminds me of Thomas Hobbes, author of the monumental early English work on social organization, “Leviathan,” in which he likens individual members of society to parts of a huge social organism (like cells in the body). Hobbes was born prematurely in 1588, when his mother heard about the invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, at the height of the Spanish naval power and military might. He later wrote: “My mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.”
One can see the lifelong effect of that kind of emotional upset passed on from mother to child. But Hobbes took his fear and worry and turned it into a major contribution to social philosophy (a little well-placed worrying can work wonders, as I reported in last month’s newsletter).
Hobbes’ experiences illustrate that like all things in life, both nature and nurture have an influence on vagal tone. You can’t help what your mother was feeling while she was pregnant with you, but you can influence how your vagus performs throughout your life.
Here are my top ways to keep your vagus in top shape:
Measure your HRV. Vagal tone can be measured by a technique called heart rate variability (HRV), or the interval between heartbeats.
Healthy, non-stressed people’s heart rate (and blood pressure) change constantly during the course of the day, often from moment to moment. But studies show when you’re stressed, emotionally or physically, you have a more regular spacing between your heartbeats. A non-variable HRV is also a predictor of disease—particularly heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Basically, the better your heart rate variability, the better your vagal tone.
You can measure your own HRV at home by downloading a free mobile app, “Stress Check”—available on both Android and iOS phones. It doesn’t require any pricey equipment and delivers the percentage of stress levels you experience throughout the day.
Mobile technology like this provides a non-invasive way to check on your body to monitor your health BEFORE it becomes an issue.
Keep it cool. Researchers have found that exposure to cold can increase vagal tone.
That means swimming in cool water or going out in cool air with minimal clothing for a few minutes. You can also get the same effect by quickly immersing your face in ice water or gulping down a cold glass of it.
In fact, in animals and infants, submerging the head or face under water results in the “diving reflex,” which is so relaxing, it can even lead to blanking out. Next time you’re in the shower, try turning the water to cool for 30 seconds to stimulate your vagus nerve, before (quickly) stepping out.
Take a breath. Deep and slow breathing is a classic way to increase vagal tone. Instead of taking the typical 10 to 14 breaths per minute, try slowing down to six inhalation/exhalation cycles per minute—one every 10 seconds.
This type of breathing, which goes all the way down to the diaphragm, is key in the popular practices of yoga, tai chi, mindfulness, meditation, and other stress-reduction approaches. In fact, studies show that practicing yoga increases a key neurotransmitter that helps with anxiety and depression. Tai chi has been shown to have similar benefits.
Sing a happy song. Chanting, humming, and singing help improve the connection of the vagus nerve to the lungs, vocal cords, and throat muscles. And research shows that singing increases HRV.2
If someone ever complains about you singing out of tune, tell them you’re doing it for your health!
Have fun. Laughing can reduce stress and stress-related hormones, and enhance vagal tone.
And conversely, stimulating the vagus nerve often leads to laughter as a side effect. Laughter also improves HRV and mood.
I have written about the many benefits and the healing effects of humor and laughter with my friend, Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, in my medical text, Fundamentals of Complementary, Alternative & Integrative Medicine (you can find a copy at www.DrMicozzi.com/books).
Make friends. Research shows that socializing, or even reflecting on happy social connections, increases positive emotions, and improves vagal tone.
One study found that people who practiced “loving kindness” meditation, which focuses on compassionate thoughts about themselves and others, had better HRV than people who did other types of meditation…or didn’t meditate at all.3
Acupuncture. A professional acupuncturist can use needles and pressure points to stimulate vagal tone, or you can mimic the benefits of acupuncture yourself by applying pressure to specific parts of your body. Gently press and rub your temple, the side of your eye, the base of your neck, the crook of your hand between thumb and forefinger, the front of your armpit between the shoulder and upper arm, or the soles of your feet.
Massage. Whole body massages, and foot massages in particular (especially reflexology), can also tone the vagus, reaching all of the places you can’t. Not to mention that they’re very relaxing.
Feed your gut. Recent discoveries show the “good” bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract—also known as probiotics—improve vagal tone by influencing production of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.
And conversely, the vagus nerve influences the ability of probiotics to make neurochemicals that improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety.
As you know, I’m not at all impressed by probiotic supplements based on the science (or mostly, the lack of it). Rather, you should eat probiotic foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, apple cider vinegar, brine-cured olives, and pickles. And don’t forget prebiotic foods, which help feed probiotics. My favorites include garlic, onion, asparagus, bananas, apples, and flaxseeds.
Try a different kind of stress eating. The omega-3s in fish oil increase vagal activity and tone. I typically recommend 1,000-2,000 mg of high-quality fish oil supplements per day. You can also get a good dose from wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.
Bonus: Eating the little bones in sardines and anchovies also gives you a great dose of bioavailable calcium, which is key for brain and nerve function.
Zinc is also important for brain function and vagal toning. Several studies show zinc increases vagal nerve stimulation in lab animals. In humans, six studies have shown zinc deficiency impairs brain function in children and adults.
You may have low zinc levels and not know it, because the clinical signs are often nonexistent. That’s why I recommend supplementing with 50-60 mg of zinc a day. Good food sources include grass-fed beef, cashews, mushrooms, oysters, and spinach.
Find your favorite mind-body technique. Along with meditation, there are several other mind-body techniques that have been found to be effective for improving vagal tone.
Biofeedback gives you instantaneous information about your heart rate and other bodily functions. This allows you to directly observe the effects of modulating vagal tone, and learn how it affects your mind and body.
Of course, mind-body techniques work differently depending upon your personality or emotional type. To find which ones are best for you, read my book, Your Emotional Type, and take my Emotional Type Quiz at: www.DrMicozzi.com/books/your_emotional_type/find-your-boundary-type.
Bottom line: Just relax. Like the wanderer nerve, I have wandered quite a bit in writing this article. But consider it an object lesson about not always being driven to stay relentlessly on a narrow path. Rather, get off the beaten path sometimes, and stop to smell the roses.
Because when it comes to your vagus nerve—and your overall health—relaxation, balance, and moderation are always key.
1“Vagal Activity, Early Growth and Emotional Development.” Infant Behav Dev. 2008 Sep; 31(3): 361–373.
2“Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers.” Front Psychol. 2013; 4: 334.
3“How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone.” Psychol Sci. 2013 Jul 1;24(7):1123-32.