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Toning Your Vagus Nerve: Why and How

Did you know that poor vagal tone may be the root cause of your chronic health condition? Not sure what it means or refers to? In this post, we share everything you need to know about the vagus nerve and vagal tone.

SIBO Tampa FLThe vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve or CN X, is a very long nerve that extends from the brain stem down through the neck and into the chest and abdomen.

It provides a communication pathway between the brain and vital organs, including the heart, lungs, esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and spleen. 

Your vagus nerve also serves as the control center of the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates bodily functions when the body is in its rest-and-digest state (as opposed to its fight-or-flight response).

You actually have two vagus nerves (left and right), but they’re commonly referred to collectively as “the vagus nerve.”

The vagus nerve is responsible for many bodily functions, including:

  • The body’s gag reflex 
  • Slowing the heart rate 
  • Controlling sweating
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Maintaining vascular tone
  • Stimulating peristalsis — the coordinated contraction and relaxation of muscles to move food and waste through the digestive system

In other words, our vagus nerve plays a key role in keeping us healthy and fit!

Various factors can negatively impact vagal tone — a term used to describe how well the vagus nerve works. Poor vagal tone can result from mold exposure, high stress, toxicity, poor diet, excess caffeine, physical or emotional trauma, gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microorganisms that inhabit the intestines and play a crucial role in digestion), or other physical or emotional stressors.

Maintaining vagal tone and restoring proper function when it’s underperforming are crucial for maintaining optimal health and well-being.

Identifying Symptoms of Poor Vagal Tone

Because the vagal nerve connects the brain to so many organs and tissues, poor vagal tone can have wide-ranging health implications, including:

  • Vasovagal syncope: “Syncope” is a fancy word for fainting. This condition occurs when the vagus nerve to your heart overreacts to a stressor, such as extreme heat, anxiety, pain, or emotional stress, causing a steep drop in blood pressure.
  • Abnormal muscle tone: Too hard/tight or soft/loose — for example, a child with an overdeveloped sympathetic nervous system may be prone to walking on his toes.
  • Cardiovascular abnormalities: Low or high heart rate, low or high blood pressure, or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which is characterized by lightheadedness, fainting, and rapid heart rate upon standing or lying down.
  • Chronic inflammation: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), systemic inflammation, or autoimmunity.
  • Cranial nerve dysfunction: A cranial nerve dysfunction can produce a wide range of symptoms depending on which of the 12 cranial nerves is affected. In the case of the vagus nerve, symptoms may include one or more of the following:
      • Uvula (the teardrop-shaped piece of soft tissue that dangles down toward the back of your mouth) doesn’t remain centered when you say “Ah”
      • Impaired or no gag reflex
      • Hoarse voice
      • Difficulty swallowing
      • Aspiration (swallowing food or liquid “down the wrong pipe”)
      • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
      • Dizziness
      • Grinding of teeth
      • Impaired social communication is characterized by poor eye contact, monotone speech, and lack of facial expression
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances or imbalances: Acid reflux, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, small-intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO), leaky gut, food sensitivities, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, or gastroparesis.

    Gastroparesis occurs when food stops moving from your stomach into your intestines, which can result in vomiting, nausea, abdominal bloating or pain, acid reflux, lack of appetite, and weight loss.

  • Cognitive, neurological, or mood disorders: These may include autism, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, dissociative identity disorder, seizures, impaired cognition/memory, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.

Note that we’re not claiming that poor vagal tone is the root cause of any of the conditions mentioned in the above list or that restoring vagal tone is a cure all for any of them.

We’re only stating that vagal tone may play a role and that restoring vagal tone should be considered in any treatment protocol for a condition related to the vagal nerve. In fact, restoring and maintaining vagal tone should be routine in any health or fitness plan.

Evaluating Your Vagal Tone

Signs of good vagal tone include the following:

  • You’re having at least one bowel movement a day and not experiencing any indigestion or constipation.
  • You’re generally in a calm, peaceful mood. You don’t experience frequent bouts of frustration, anger, anxiety, or depression.
  • You recover from stressful situations quickly and easily.
  • You think clearly and have no trouble recalling information.
  • You’re not suffering from any chronic health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hormone imbalances, chronic constipation, diabetes, or arthritis.

Here at BioDesign Wellness Center, our approach to healthcare is focused in part on discovering and addressing the cause of the altered vagal tone while simultaneously treating it. We use the following methods and tools to evaluate vagal tone:

  • Physical examination
  • Review of medical, family, and personal history
  • Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with NeuroQuant: The NeuroQuant software from San Diego, Calif.-based CorTechs takes the MRI data and identifies and segments the different structures in the brain, including the hippocampus. During this process, it calculates the volume of those brain structures and compares them with a database of what’s normal based on a person’s age, gender, and cranial volume. NeuroQuant is also useful for patients experiencing fatigue, brain fog, or other neurological symptoms to assess for atrophy or hyperactivity/inflammation in the brain that can degrade vagal nerve tone. 
  • GI Map to look for gut infections 
  • Adrenal and cortisol saliva and blood tests to determine whether the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, is overactive. Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the accelerator and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake; the two must be balanced for optimum health and fitness.

Toning Your Vagus Nerve

There are several ways to restore and maintain vagal tone, many of which you can do on your own.

Below, we cover several of these methods, including the use of medical-grade nutrients and supplements; incorporating gargling, laughing, singing, and humming into your daily routine; meditation and deep breathing; dancing; audio stimulation; and vagus nerve stimulation.

Nutrients/Supplements to Support Vagus Nerve Health

Several nutrients support vagus nerve health and function, including the following:

  • Choline is used to produce acetylcholine, the most abundant neurotransmitter in the body. Good sources of choline are eggs, red meat, liver, chicken, fish, and sunflower seeds. A high-quality phosphatidylcholine supplement is also a good option.
  • Vitamin B12 as methylcobalamin is best for absorption. We recommend taking a high-quality methylated B-complex vitamin for improved absorption.
  • Magnesium, which plays a role in over 300 bodily functions, naturally relaxes the body and can help alleviate constipation. We recommend magnesium threonate (specifically because it crosses the blood-brain barrier).
  • Sodium (a component of salt) has been linked to positive heart rate variability (HRV), which is a common measure of vagal tone.
  • Omega-3 fats have also been linked to positive HRV, better recovery after exercise, and reduced risks of cardiovascular disease.

Gargling, Laughing, Singing, and Humming

Anything stimulating your vocal cords can improve your vagal tone, including gargling, laughing, singing, and humming. These activities also force you to engage in controlled deep breathing, which may be one of the reasons they work.

Deep Breathing and Meditation

Deep breathing exercises and meditation promote the mind-body connection and the body’s rest-and-digest response. Here are some relaxation exercises that involve controlled breathing and meditation:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Qi gong
  • Mindfulness meditation

Dancing and Other Physical Movements

Dancing, jumping, bending, kneeling, raising our arms over our heads, and other physical movements that get our bodies in motion all help to stimulate the vagus nerve. While we’re not entirely sure how these movements help, they all involve increased cardiovascular activity and massaging our internal organs.

Audio Stimulation

Exposing the body to different sound frequencies helps to stimulate the nervous system in a way that generates a sense of safety and calm, enabling us to process trauma more effectively and regulate our emotions.

Dr. Stephen Porges, the developer of the polyvagal theory (constructs related to the role of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation, social connection, and fear response), has created the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) as a formal approach for using different sound frequencies to restore and maintain vagal tone.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) involves surgically implanting a small electronic device in the chest with a wire running to the vagus nerve in the neck.

The device sends a low-level electrical current to the nerve to stimulate it. V

NS has been shown to be effective in treating a number of very serious health conditions, including these:

  • Treatment-resistant epilepsy
  • Severe depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

A less invasive form of VNS is transcutaneous VNS (tVNS), which uses a TENS unit to send electrical impulses to the outer ear — no surgical procedure is required. The TENS unit is connected to a lead that clips to the ear and can be used for 10–15 minutes several times throughout the day. tVNS has shown some promise in treating a broad range of conditions, including the following:

  • Depression
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Lupus (to reduce pain and fatigue)
  • Stroke (to improve upper limb and sensory function)
  • Tinnitus
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease

Remember that restoring vagal tone isn’t a cure-all. In fact, many medical conditions can diminish vagal tone and must be addressed before vagal tone can be fully restored.

We strongly encourage you to consult a functional healthcare practice for a full workup before implementing any treatment protocol, as doing so will ensure you have a clear understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface and aren’t merely “chasing symptoms.”

However, don’t wait until you’re sick to tone your vagal nerve. It’s something you can do on your own, and it can be loads of fun — dancing, karaoke, laughing out loud, and even singing in the shower can all improve your vagal tone!

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about the Vagus nerve and vagal tone is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at BioDesign Wellness Center, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.