Ancient yoga masters have had awareness of the human body system based on mapping of the body – mind and engaging the whole body – cellular body, organ body, nervous system, muscoskeletal.
In the new paradigm — what does this mind body connection actually mean — from a physiological perspective the Vagus nerve helps us explain this.
Vagus nerve is one of the longest nerve systems in the body and is the 10th cranial nerve that originates in the limbic center in the brain stem. It sends a variety of signals throughout the body but also transfers signals back to the brain, connecting the brain, heart and gut. Additionally, connects to all these organs i.e. – intestine, spleen, liver, heart, kidney.
The vagus nerve forms a part of the autonomous nervous system. Since it is part of the parasympathetic system, it is responsible for the rest and digest portion of our nervous system. It has 1000 fibers and 80% of those are sensory and report back to the brain what is happening in the organs.
The strength of the vagal tone is determined by our heart rate. Each time we breathe in there is a slight increase in heart rate and as we breathe out – long exhales, our heart rate slows. The variability in the heart rate is regulated by the vagal nerve. The more variable the heart rate – the higher the vagal tone. A healthy vagal tone is necessary to maintain balance. It is linked with well-being.
Why it is important:
If the vagus nerve is continuously inflamed because the gut is impaired or there is inflammation in other parts of the body – the vagal tone will be low. If we are looking at lowering inflammation and gaining a stronger mind-body connection – strengthening our vagal tone could help us.
This nerve follows the entire digestive system while also receiving some of its nutrients from the different portions of the brain, the heart and the lungs in the form of what is called Prana(pure energy). It can become under-active when the body is in constant flight or fight state. When we are in a constant stressed out state – our breathing is shallow, our heart rate increases and as a result digestion is impaired and this thus can lead to a cascade of problems. This is when our vagal tone is low. When we are resilient and are able to bounce back from stressful situations, our vagal tone is strong.
People with low vagal tone – are in flight or fight states, and are not able to bounce back easily to homeostasis, they then can have impaired immunity, digestion, increased heart rate as a result of this.
We can stimulate, regulate and strengthen vagal tone through :
The healing power of sound – In Ayurvedic healing – the most important sound therapy is “Mantra” – Meaning that which saves the mind – Manas or instrument of the mind. It is a useful tool for healing the mind – the inner mind – consciousness. Mantra can be a single sound like OM or a phrase or prayer. Repeated in a consistent manner can turn the mantra into a tool of healing transformation.
In addition to healing our physical body through herbs, nutrients, supplements, regular chanting of mantra can help transform the energetics of the mind. Some examples of mantras :
OM is a mantra for creating a healing space, it energizes and clears the mind. It is the sound of Prana or our internal life force energy, necessary for healing to take place. It opens up our consciousness.
HUM is for disclosing negative energies, helps restore nerve function.
RAM is a mantra for calm and rest, helps with anxiety and nervousness and strengthens the immune system.
Heart rate variability
Heart rate variability is the measure of moment to moment changes in the heart rate due to the combined action of the 2 branches of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic and parasympathetic(vagus). An optimal level of variability is a sign of a resilience, adaptability and general healthy well being. The technology of Heart math namely inner balance and Emv helps us observe these changing rhythms in real time. HRV is an important marker and indicator for health, wellness and fitness. By using these Hearth math techniques with practice one can restore HRV to low and optimum values. Our thoughts, our stressors, emotions are all factors that influence HRV. As we begin practicing Hearth math focusing on positive emotions of joy, love, care and peace our heart rhythm becomes more coherent and the synergistic activity between the 2 branches of the ANS becomes more synchronized and helps us perform better – physiologically and psychologically – and we achieve a state of increase resilience, clarity, higher cognitive function and of course a stronger vagal tone.
Loving Kindness meditation
Meditation – The act of simply being, noticing thoughts coming your way and just effortlessly without judgement coming back to the breath. Positive emotion of compassion and love towards self and others is known as loving kindness meditation. Studies have shown feeling of compassion towards oneself and others is an effective way to increase vagal tone. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus during feelings of compassion and the oxytocin further fuels those feelings of contentment and improves the vagal tone.
Here is a short loving kindness meditation by Tara Brach
Pranayama as we know as breath work or breathing exercises is more than just that – it’s the controlled expansion of the life force i.e. Prana.
Pranayama – like alternate nostril breathing helps calm and regulate the vagus nerve.
Neurofeedback is advanced brain training. Through this tech we can learn to control our own brain waves. To get out of the beta waves – stress response frequency to a slower more relaxed alpha brain wave – which is restorative, slower and relaxing. The methodology allows one to go deep into ones awareness by picking up brain waves, that is the tiny signals amplifies them and we get feedback real time as to what the brain is doing and over a period of time the training sets us up for being in a more resilient state of mind and a stronger ability to cope with stress.
Other ways :
- Cold showers
- Movement and grounding
- Eating foods that are good for our nervous system and brain like wild caught fish, sardines – high in omega 3 fatty acids and DHA, Foods high in choline – like eggs, red meat, liver, polyphenols like blueberries, colored vegetables and leafy greens, good fats.
- Supplements like magnesium, omega 3, folate, Vitamin E, probiotics with the strains needed for our micro biome are known to be beneficial for brain, neurotransmitters formation and nervous system health.
To learn more about the vagus nerve read:
Dr Stephen Porges research on Polyvagal theory : http://stephenporges.com
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Such an interesting read. Thank you so much, Radhika!
Thank you for this information. Acupuncture really makes you feel relaxing so as massaging. We should need these things to lesse or relieve stress.