"What is the vagus nerve? It is the physiological manifestation of the mind-body connection! The brain and body are completely integrated through the communication pathway that is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is actually a bundle of nerves that goes from our pelvis to the base of our neck. Branches of the vagus nerve connect to every organ, go down our limbs, and wrap around into our face, to the auditory and ocular nerves, and more. The vagus nerve is a portal for information gathering, mostly bringing information from the body and organs up into the brain.
Ideally, we want HIGH vagal tone. That means that the nerve is very active and responsive to environmental and bodily cues. When the vagus nerve has low tone, or is inactive, this is when problems occur. When the vagus nerve has low tone, it means it can more easily get stuck in a survival state.
What causes low vagal tone? Low vagal tone can occur from developmental trauma (chronic trauma especially in early childhood or infancy), nutrient deficiencies, chronic infections in the gut, tight muscles and tension patterns in the fascia, as well as skeletal alignment issues or other physical injuries. Of course, for many people, it is a combination of all of these things.
What are signs you have low vagal tone? Basically, any symptom related to the autonomic nervous system! This can be anything from dysautonomia, autoimmunity, psychiatric disorders, neurological disorders, digestive disorders, and more.
For example, this could manifest as symptoms like chronic constipation, heart rate irregularity, low blood pressure, fainting spells, immune system overactivity or underactivity, difficulty with social connection and interaction, depression, learning disabilities, but also so may more!
The problem is not EVER having these symptoms- sometimes they may be indicated in the face of a major stressor. The problem is getting STUCK with these symptoms for months or years due to chronically low vagal tone- the vagus nerve not able to "bounce back" from a stress state.
What are ways to get you out of a chronic survival state and improve the tone of your vagus nerve?
-Foam rolling: this can help you release chronic tension patterns in your fascia, which can inhibit vagal tone. Don"t roll the side of your hip at the top of your IT band, or your low back. Otherwise, you can explore freely- pausing where you find discomfort- but don"t push into pain. Gently coax your muscles to release.
-Releasing the psoas muscle- this is a very important muscle related to vagal tone. It is our major contraction muscle that activates in the face of stress. This muscle is very difficult to access directly as it sits deep in our core. One way to address it indirectly is to stretch the hip flexors. You can also lie in a constructive rest position and VISUALIZE the psoas relaxing and releasing. Lastly, if you can go to a massage therapist that does deep tissue work and has been trained in psoas release can do it manually by digging their fingers into the soft tissue of your stomach- but this is very intense!
-Breathwork- if your diaphragm is chronically contracted, it can negatively effect vagal tone. People often find that lying on their back and having their hands on their low ribs helps give them the proper feedback to breath deeper.
-Core strengthening exercises- If you have a weak core, you may paradoxically have a lot of tension in your core. Practice core strengthening exercises so that you can successfully relax these muscles!
-Posture and alignment- If you have a weak upper back, you may have developed poor posture and alignment. This allows your spine to be in the proper position and facilitates improved vagal tone. Make sure your body is properly stacked when you stand and sit- make sure your ribs are stacked over your pelvis, and your skull is stacked over your ribs. Strengthening the upper back muscles can help as well.
-Release tension in the neck and shoulders- you can use a tennis ball on the top of your shoulders and lean forward to press the ball against a wall can help release tension here. Wiggling and shaking your shoulders out and making sure you are not chronically hunching your shoulders up by your ears are important. Stretch your neck regularly- roll it from side to side, bring your ears to your shoulders to allow release, etc.
-Chiropractic work can be helpful if your C1 and C2 vertebrae are chronically out of alignment.
-Release tension in the face and ears. Gently tug on and massage your ears. This is especially indicated if you have auditory sensitivities. Facial massage is also very helpful- gently explore with your fingertips until you find points of tension and press into them until they release. Another great tool is to make exaggerate fascial expressions at yourself in the mirror, open your eyes wide, look in different directions, etc. While this may feel excessive, it is an excellent way to activate the nerves in your face.
-Your voice is a powerful indicator of vagal tone. Accentuate your "vocal prosody", the melodic, sing-song sound to your voice. Humming, chanting and singing can also stimulate your vagus nerve through vibration. Gargling with water vigorously and "gagging" yourself with a tongue depressor or end of a hairbrush can also help stimulate your vagus nerve. You are basically giving the muscles in your throat a small work out."