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3 Simple Tricks to Heighten Your Vagal Tone – And Why You Want to

The vagus nerve may hold the key to better mental health and stress management – but so many of us remain unaware of how it works and what it even is. We’re here to give you the rundown on all things vagus, plus we unveil why it’s all about increasing your vagal tone – and how to do it from the comfort of your own home. 

How a Regulated Vagus Nerve Affects Mental Health 

Regulation of Stress Response: The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in regulating the body's stress response through its influence on the parasympathetic nervous system. High vagal tone is associated with better stress resilience, while low vagal tone is linked to increased susceptibility to stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Emotional Regulation: The vagus nerve helps regulate emotions by modulating the activity of key brain regions involved in emotional processing, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. By dampening the activity of the amygdala, which is responsible for processing fear and other negative emotions, the vagus nerve promotes emotional stability and resilience.

Social Engagement: The vagus nerve is involved in the regulation of social behaviour and interpersonal connections. High vagal tone is associated with better social functioning, including the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Impairments in vagal function have been linked to social withdrawal, loneliness, and difficulties in social interactions.

Inflammation and Immune Function: The vagus nerve helps regulate inflammation and immune function through its communication with the body's immune system. Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to reduce inflammation by inhibiting the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are implicated in the pathogenesis of mood disorders such as depression.

Cognitive Function: The vagus nerve influences cognitive function through its connections with various brain regions involved in memory, attention, and executive function. Optimal vagal tone is associated with better cognitive performance, including improved memory consolidation, attentional control, and decision-making abilities. Dysfunction of the vagus nerve has been implicated in cognitive impairments seen in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

What is Vagal Tone?

Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the body and plays a key role in regulating various bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and stress response. The tone of this nerve reflects the strength and efficiency of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for promoting relaxation, rest, and digestion. A higher vagal tone indicates greater activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to better regulation of bodily functions and increased resilience to stress. It is associated with a range of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular function, enhanced emotional regulation, and better overall wellbeing.

Measuring vagal tone typically involves assessing heart rate variability (HRV), which refers to the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. High HRV indicates a flexible and adaptive autonomic nervous system, with greater vagal tone contributing to more variability in heart rate. Various techniques, such as electrocardiography (ECG) or heart rate monitors, can be used to measure HRV and indirectly assess vagal tone. 

Luckily, we have some power to get things moving in the right direction. Let’s take a look at 3 science-backed ways to improve vagal tone.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or paced breathing, have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. These exercises involve taking slow, deep breaths, typically inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling slowly through the mouth. Research suggests that regular practice of deep breathing exercises can enhance vagal tone, leading to improvements in stress resilience and emotional regulation. 

Give it a go: 

  1. Find a comfortable seated or lying position. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  3. Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen expand as you fill your lungs with air. Try to keep your chest relatively still while focusing on the rise of your abdomen.
  4. Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth, feeling your abdomen gently contract as you release the air from your lungs.
  5. Continue this deep breathing pattern for several breaths, focusing on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body.
  6. As you breathe deeply, try to relax any tension in your muscles and allow yourself to become more present in the moment.
  7. If your mind begins to wander, gently bring your focus back to your breath and the sensation of deep breathing.

Meditation and Mindfulness Practices

Meditation and mindfulness practices have been found to positively influence vagal tone by promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels. Studies have shown that regular meditation practice is associated with increased vagal tone and improved autonomic balance. Mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or loving-kindness meditation, may also enhance vagal tone and support mental health by fostering greater emotional awareness and regulation.

Aerobic Exercise

Don't worry, you don't have to wear spandex or recreate Alyssa Milano's 80s workout fashion! But... we won't stop you either. 

Regular aerobic exercise - think jogging, swimming and cycling - has been shown to boost vagal tone and improve autonomic function. Physical activity stimulates the vagus nerve and increases heart rate variability, a marker of vagal tone. Engaging in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week has been recommended to promote vagal tone and cardiovascular health. Additionally, activities that involve rhythmic, repetitive movements, such as yoga or tai chi, may also have beneficial effects on vagal tone. 

So, now you know what to do, let’s take a look at what not to do. Several factors and lifestyle habits can contribute to lower vagal tone, leading to reduced activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and potential health implications.  Some common factors that may lower vagal tone include:

  • Chronic Stress: Prolonged exposure to stress, whether psychological, emotional, or physical, can dysregulate the autonomic nervous system and lower vagal tone. High levels of stress hormones like cortisol can inhibit the function of the vagus nerve, leading to decreased parasympathetic activity.
  • Sedentary Lifestyle: Lack of regular physical activity and sedentary behavior can negatively impact vagal tone. Exercise and movement stimulate vagal activity and support overall autonomic balance, while prolonged sitting or physical inactivity may reduce vagal tone over time.
  • Poor Sleep Quality: Inadequate or poor-quality sleep can disrupt autonomic function and lower vagal tone. Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or sleep apnea, may interfere with the body's ability to rest and repair, leading to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system.
  • Unhealthy Diet: Consuming a diet high in processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats while lacking in nutrient-dense whole foods can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress, which may negatively impact vagal tone. Conversely, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats supports overall health and vagal function.
  • Chronic Illness: Certain medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune disorders, can affect autonomic function and vagal tone. Chronic inflammation and metabolic dysregulation associated with these conditions may impair vagal activity and contribute to autonomic dysfunction.
  • Emotional Trauma: Past or ongoing emotional trauma, including childhood adversity or traumatic experiences, can have lasting effects on the autonomic nervous system and vagal tone. Individuals with a history of trauma may exhibit altered stress responses and reduced parasympathetic activity. 

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