As we become more entrenched in looking at the micro details of treatment and specializing in particular areas of health, the more we are learning to take a step back and look at the person in front of us as a whole. It is often more about the lifestyle and state of the person we are treating, than the cure itself. Of particular interest in recent years has been how taking a step back and calming the body can drive greater changes than we could have conceived when we get too close.
Oftentimes we are driving ourselves in to the ground with a cocktail of overwork, poor nutrition, limited movement, and disconnection from the people around us, opting instead for screen time and burying our noses to the grind. This ramps up our sympathetic nervous system, our ‘fight or flight’, and our bodies aren’t equipped to decide what is a life threatening issue, and what is a deadline or a desire to work in overdrive. The flip side of this coin is our parasympathetic nervous system. This is our ‘rest and digest’, our calm, our flow state. While many people tell themselves they don’t have the time or won’t get the same results from tapping in to this side of our bodies, it is the exact opposite.
Our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, our digestion, creating new neural pathways, relaxes our muscles and restores a state of calm in the body. One of the main drivers of our PSNS in the body is our vagus nerve. Also known as the wandering nerve, this cranial nerve starts at the base of our brain and extends through to the colon, crossing the neck, chest, and abdomen, connecting our eyes, heart, lungs, gut, liver, gallbladder, intestines, kidneys, bladder and sex organs to our brain. The role of the nerve is to ‘wander’ around the body, collecting data and shuttling it to and from the brain and these major organs. Over time, through stress, certain medical conditions and medications, and high output, the tone of the nerve can be decrease, meaning that it is less capable of sending strong communication signals through the body. Much like a muscle, we can improve the tone of the nerve through some light lifting.
Vagus nerve stimulation began being investigated in the early 90’s as a treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy and depression. Implanted devices send signals along the nerve from the chest to decrease the rate of excitation causing seizures, and increase production and uptake of serotonin from the gut. It has become an increasing area of research over the last 4 years, as we look to our inner nature of calming to reduce inflammatory conditions, improve brain function, and align many of the body’s functions. Advancements are being made with less invasive forms of treatment. One form of this is transauricular vagus nerve stimulation (TaVNS). This process involves attaching clips to the ear, which has a 100% innervation (excitation) of the nerve. Using a particular frequency to work on particular pathways, we can increase the tone of the nerve, bringing up the parasympathetic nervous system and moving away from being locked in sympathetic nervous system dominance.
What can this help treat? Along with depression and epilepsy, TaVNS has been researched to improve intestinal permeability in Crohn’s disease and leaky gut, improve the blood-brain barrier after a traumatic brain injury, reduce chronic pain, downregulate the release of inflammatory markers, balance the immune system to reduce over-excitation as is seen in autoimmunity, treat migraines and headaches, reduce blood pressure and increased heart rate, improve memory, concentration and focus, manage anxiety, decrease neuroinflammation (as indicated in schizophrenia and general brain fog), manage bowel contraction in gastroparesis and IBS, improve hydrochloric acid depletion in the gut for better digestion, aid in restoring balance through rehabilitation of the mind-muscle connection, manage SIBO and SIFO, promotes satiety through balancing insulin and ghrelin release, and is being researched in treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
There are some great ways you can activate the PSNS and the vagus nerve at home. Deep breathing, yoga, chanting and singing, gargling and gagging, cold exposure, meditation, probiotics, massage and acupuncture, and increasing omega 3 fatty acids in the gut all contribute to reducing our fight or flight response and instead support the gentler side of your nervous system. My favourite trick is to have people take three long deep slow breaths before they eat. As the vagus nerve plays a huge role in our gut, making sure you breath prepares the stomach for food and moves us towards greater digestion. This is a hot topic in the medical world right now and we will surely see greater developments as time goes along. In the meantime, make sure you practice deep breathing, and treat your body and mind with kindness and calm.
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