How To Use Your Vagal Lifeline
Published: November 18, 2020 Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner
Approx. Read Time: 8 Minutes
“Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” ~ Hans Selye
Regular readers will appreciate we have tried to use this forum to provide ideas/research that could be helpful as individuals struggle to deal with (not simply accept) the uncertain world we are living in which is particularly well described in an article I recently came across. (#6)
“Stripped both of structure and spontaneity, a day could feel like a week and a week like a month, yet two hours could evaporate in a puff of anxiety as you googled COVID-19 symptoms….”
To be sure we have followed our typical ‘eclectic’ approach on this matter including previous articles such as:
- Illustrating how to create a cocktail via laughter (How To Brew a Cocktail That Will Make You Feel Better)
- Providing examples on how to be a warrior vs. a worrier – better yet a compassionate warrior! (Worrier vs. Warrior)
- A metaphor for the times (A Powerful Arrow For Your Catastrophe Quiver)
In light of the persistence of the current COVID-19 situation, I have chosen (more than usual) to continue to use neuroscience from still another “different” angle.
So far today’s approach: we are going to grab hold of the Vagus nerve as a lifeline for turbulent times.
While it is in some ways “another” angle – the bibliography contains references to several articles I have written on the Vagus nerve in related contexts.
“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~ Chinese proverb
Given many people (the number is decreasing) are not familiar with the Vagus nerve – the following will provide some context.
The vagus nerve is a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest and digest” system – in contrast to the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ which we hear much more about – for various reasons. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that reflects the activity of the vagus nerve.
In fact, it is often called the “wandering nerve” (the word “vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin). The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and travels from the base of the brain up into the ears and down into the lower intestines. The vagus is the most complex of the 12 cranial nerves as it connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. The brain receives significant information from the gut region via bacteria.
The premise of this article is that strengthening the tone of the vagus nerve can improve conditions such as anxiety, migraines, addiction, gastrointestinal malfunction, dementia, cancer, heart disease, etc., etc. In addition, it influences your respiration, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
For those wanting a specific illustration: “In 1921, German physiologist Otto Loewi discovered that the vagus nerve squirts a calming, tranquilizer-like substance directly into cardiac muscle cell synapses and slows heart rate.” (#3)
An interesting illustration of the power of engaging the Vagal nerve (but very much related to our previously mentioned laughter cocktail) comes from the work of Hilla Benzaken. (#4)
“Research shows that just by thinking of our loved ones we can tone and strengthen the vagus nerve, thereby reaping the many benefits that the nerve provides.”
Finally, for those who want to use the Vagal nerve in still another context, I refer you to: Can Vagus Nerve Stimulation Improve How We Learn?.
Vagal Stimulation – Do it yourself
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” ~
To date the best ‘users guide’ I have located is a recent article by Jordan Fallis (How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health) (#5). The following are direct excerpts related to the benefits of “natural” vagus nerve stimulation.
- Deep and Slow Breathing
- Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm.
- Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling
- The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat.
- Gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve.
- Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself.
- Increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.
- Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone.
- Socializing and Laughing
- Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions.
- Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood.
- Vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another.
- Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Yoga and Tai Chi
- Yoga and tai chi are two “mind-body” relaxation techniques that work by stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.
- An essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with chronic anxiety.
- Intermittent Fasting
- On most days, I don’t eat breakfast at all, and then “break my fast” by eating my first meal of the day around 2 or 3 p.m. That means I eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window.
- Cold Exposure
- Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve.
The reader can find more information on my related “Business Brain Model articles” list especially on 1, 4, 6 and 8.
Vagal Stimulation – with a bit of help
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
There is a (rapidly) growing pool of info (some not completely validated) that stimulating the vagal nerve – via implants including both internal and external can help with stress. For our purposes here – I highlight a good review of a non-invasive technique. The salient points:
- “Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) devices that do not require a surgical implant—but can reach the auricular branch of the vagus nerve that extends to the outer ear—have been making headlines.”
- “Devices have been shown to increase the “relaxation response” of the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce fight-or-flight stress responses driven by the sympathetic nervous system.”
- “Boosted “rest and digest” parasympathetic activity and reduced “fight or flight” sympathetic activity in a cohort of adults 55+ years old.”
- “According to the researchers, as we age, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system starts to dominate; this autonomic imbalance reduces optimal bodily functions and makes us more susceptible to illness as we get older.”
- “For the first time, we have shown that age-related autonomic, quality of life, mood and sleep changes may be improved with transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation administered [for 15 minutes] every day for two weeks.”
For those particularly interested I have included a few additional references I would recommend in the bibliography.
“A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” –
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Have a cocktail – change your attitude – stimulate your Vagal nerve.
You can get thru this!
- Christopher Bergland – Can Vagus Nerve Stimulation Improve How We Learn?
- Christopher Bergland – Vagus Nerve Stimulation via the Outer Ear Takes Center Stage
- Christopher Bergland – Need to Ace It? Hack Your Cerebellum & Vagus Nerve Like This
- Hilla Benzaken – 10 Ways to Reduce Stress With the Power of the Vagus Nerve
- Jordan Fallis – How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health
- Lori Fox – The life you thought you were going to have is gone
Miscellaneous articles re vagal stimulation:
- Michael W. Richardson – Are Commercial Vagus Nerve Stimulation Devices Safe and Effective?
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) – Vagus Nerve Stimulation
- UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh – Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) Implantation for Children
Related Business Brain Model articles:
- How To Brew a Cocktail That Will Make You Feel Better
- Body & Brain: Part Three – Is Your Gut the Most Important Part of Your Brain?
- Body & Brain: Part Four – Gut Check: Do You Know What’s in Yours?
- Augmented Cognitive Performance – Part 1 Hi-Tech
- Our View of the World is Misleading – Part 1
- Our View of the World is Misleading – Part 2
- This Will Take Your Breath Away
- Can Your Vagus Nerve Stimulate Your Business Success
- Worrier vs. Warrior
- A Powerful Arrow For Your Catastrophe Quiver
About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.