Turning On Your Body's Ability to Heal Using Your Vagus Nerve
Start activating your parasympathetic nervous system to TURN ON your body’s ability to heal!
Your vagus nerve serves as the “on/off” switch to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
You may or may not know, but your vagus nerve is a sensory nerve that starts at the base of the brain and travels down both sides of your neck through your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat, neck, ear and facial muscles. Pretty cool, huh?
Activating any of the organs that run by your vagus nerve can help stimulate your vagus nerve to activate your parasympathetic nervous system; these include:
• Brain, which helps calm inflammation, control anxiety and relieve depression.
• Tongue, which helps to improve taste and saliva production, swallowing, and speech.
• Ears, which help to ease tinnitus.
• Eyes, which help the pupils shrink to make eye contact and promote social connection and safety.
• Larynx, which helps feed your lungs and diaphragm with oxygen.
• Stomach, which helps to stimulate stomach acid for healthy digestion.
• Intestines, which allow for nutrient absorption and trigger the muscle contractions (peristalsis) to allow food and waste to move through the digestive tract.
• Pancreas, which triggers the production and release of enzymes that aid in digestion.
• Liver, which triggers detoxification and supports blood sugar functions.
• Lungs, which allows your airways to expand and contract.
• Gallbladder, which triggers the release of bile that rids the body of toxins and breaks down fat (critical for most paleo and keto diets).
• Heart, which helps to regulate heart rate and blood pressure.
• Spleen, which inhibits inflammation by calming the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by inflammatory cells that affect other cells).
• Kidneys, which release sodium, increase blood flow, and manage blood sugar.
• Bladder, which allows for bladder retention to prevent frequent urination.
• Reproductive organs, which support fertility and sexual arousal.
• Immune system, which regulates inflammation, switching off the production of proteins that fuel the inflammatory immune response.
Isn't that all crazy?! One nerve can affect anyone of those organs or all! Let's give you some practices that engage these areas to activate your parasympathetic state (REALLY good for anyone who is working through trauma!):
1. Cold Exposure
I only recommend cold exposure if you are NOT dealing with trauma. Start small like splashing cold water on your face, or holding a siplock bag of ice on your face for 30 seconds. You can also take a warm shower and the last minute you turn it cold.
Here's the thing, sudden cold exposure causes blood vessels to dilate. Research has found that the resulting increase in blood flow to your body and brain warms the tissue, improves nerve conduction and turns on your parasympathetic relaxation response. Additional research confirmed that when the body adjusts to cold temperatures, your fight-or-flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system increases. In this study, temperatures of 50°F (10°C) were considered cold.
Research specifically finds that “cold stimulation at the lateral neck region would result in higher heart rate variability” which is the gage for parasympathetic tone.
2. Humming, Singing and Chanting
Your vagus nerve passes through your vocal cords and inner ear. The vibrations of sound, including singing or humming, stimulate your vagus nerve by engaging it through your throat, your diaphragm (as you breathe) and even through your heart!
One study found that singing increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which serves as an important measure of your parasympathetic tone (or ability to activate the parasympathetic state). Interestingly, the study found that different sound activation techniques (think humming, chanting, slow songs like church hymns versus upbeat pop songs) all increase HRV in slightly different ways. They guessed that singing initiates the work of a vagal pump, sending relaxing waves through your body. Additionally, they found out that singing at “the top of your lungs” might work the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus. Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increased HRV and vagus function in this study.
Check out Whoop to help track your HRV!
Sunlight is the primary source of energy on earth and energy derived from sunlight powers everything on earth, including the healthy function of your body. Exposing your skin to sunlight for at least 20-30 minutes at a time, ideally first thing in the morning helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
The human body needs light to be healthy, not just to support Vitamin D production, but also help regulate healthy natural rhythms including the sleep wake rhythm known as your circadian rhythm and your stress and relaxation rhythm supported by the parasympathetic nervous system.
4. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as tapping, is a proven easy and accessible approach to instantly calm your nervous system and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. I know it sounds odd, but it works! By using your fingers to gently tap on specific energy meridians on your head and torso, you help to release stored energy that is blocking the healthy flow of information.
Stagnant physical and emotional energy correlates with dysfunction or dysregulation in your nervous system.
This balances activity between the sympathetic and parasympathetic regions of your brain, producing “a neutral emotional state.” More specifically, EFT literally turns off your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and helps to shift your body into a state of relaxation, where it can heal. Research has found that EFT significantly lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which so many of us need!
EFT is the easiest and fastest way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. You can do it anytime and anywhere.
5. Sleeping on your right side
Restful sleep helps you relax, reset and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Research measuring HRV, found that during sleep parasympathetic activity increased.
Additional research suggests that laying on your right side amplifies heart rate variability and parasympathetic activation more than other recumbent positions. For example, lying on the back led to the lowest vagus activation in one study. This might be one reason why some doctors tell pregnant women to not lay on the right side during pregnancy, as to not put too much pressure on the vagus nerve.
Environmental toxins trigger your immune system and can keep your nervous system on high alert. On the other end, successfully eliminating environmental toxins – including pesticides, chemicals, heavy metals, and mold as well as by-products of internal imbalances, like viruses or infections – helps calm the nervous system and activates the parasympathetic state.
Binders play such a critical role in ensuring that toxins are eliminated. Binders, or solid, insoluble particles that pass through the gut unabsorbed, attract and bind toxins to facilitate their passage out of the body through the gastrointestinal tract. In other words, binders ensure that the toxins actually leave your body. Binders literally ‘bind’ to toxins to help move them out of the body. They work by attracting or trapping toxins, and transport them out of the body.
When you detoxify, you mobilize toxins from the cells which are carried by the lymph fluid through the bloodstream to the liver. When the liver processes toxins, they get excreted in the bile, which is a digestive fluid released by the gallbladder that flows into the small intestines. Ideally, the toxins move through the intestines and leave the body in the feces. But if the toxins are not bound to anything, most of them will get reabsorbed in the gut. Your gut lining has many veins and nerves that can pick up toxins and re-circulate them back into the body, known as enterohepatic recirculation.
Binders can be used to bind to the toxins and shuttle them out of the digestive tract, preventing reabsorption.
Using binders to remove toxins through the bowels greatly relieves the stress placed on the kidneys. Because of the kidneys’ ability to reabsorb and accumulate toxic heavy metals, they are uniquely vulnerable to these elements. With binders, the toxins are excreted through the feces instead of being absorbed by the bloodstream where the kidneys are required to filter them out. This helps alleviate the strain on the microtubules and filtering mechanisms in the kidneys. Binders also lessen the load on the bladder as toxins can irritate and inflame the walls of your bladder as they sit and wait to be excreted through urination.
7. Safety cues
A key to activating your parasympathetic nervous system is allowing your body to feel safe. So important for trauma survivors! Your nervous system is wired to respond to thought-driven stress triggers along with actual physical stressors. It also responds to thought driven safety cues, like imagining your favorite safe physical environment. It can be a place you have actually visited, like a favorite place in nature or vacation spot or anywhere that you can visualize that inspires feelings of safety and calm. You can even build an imaginary house in your safe spot, complete with comfortable furniture and the smells of your favorite foods cooking in the kitchen. It’s helpful to integrate as many sensory cues as you can – including the sights, smells, sounds as well as how the environment makes you feel.
Allowing your mind to mentally travel to this safe place whenever you feel overwhelmed or fearful helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and calm fear and anxiety. The more you practice this visualization, the easier it will be to initiate the “safe place” without much effort. It’s there when you feel fearful or overwhelmed.
8. Supporting Gut Health
Your vagus nerve connects your gut and brain, known as the gut-brain axis, and sends both physical and biochemical signals in both directions. Supporting gut health and the healthy balance of gut bacteria (also known as gut microbiome) helps support the parasympathetic nervous system.
Your enteric nervous system, which governs digestive function and works in tandem with your parasympathetic nervous system, is comprised of your “microbiome”, or the bacteria that resides within your intestinal tract. Ideally, there is a balance of good bacteria to keep opportunistic pathogens and bacteria in check. A diet that includes foods YOUR body likes and a good probiotic (make sure you get tested first because some probiotics may actually feed infections!), is great to support your microbiome.
For example, one study found that feeding mice a probiotic reduced the amount of stress hormone in their blood. However, when their vagus nerve was cut, the probiotic had no effect. Healthy microbiome in your gut nervous system connects to your brain through your vagus nerve. Research has demonstrated that this connection helps curb anxiety and improve your mood, as many of the mood boosting hormones, like serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), your chief inhibitory neurotransmitter. "This can be the reason why the gut microbiome seems to affect mood. Low levels of GABA are linked to depression and mood disorders,” according to the study.
In conclusion, when your brain is not functioning well nothing else in the body functions well. This includes your brain’s ability to communicate with your body. Your vagus nerve activates the branch of your autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic branch that signals your body to relax, repair and heal. Digestion, detoxification, and immune functions are only turned on when your body is in a parasympathetic state. Simply put: you cannot heal outside of the parasympathetic state.