For the third Weekly Zen session we focused on the science behind the functioning of the Vagus Nerve. If you have never heard of the vagus nerve before, that's okay! It seems to be one of the most overlooked contributors to our overall mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. I will dive into my findings from the research I've done about the vagus nerve and the way it can positively affect our nervous, digestive and circulatory systems.
We began the Weekly Zen session with a Hip Opener Yoga Flow. It's very important to stretch and activate your hips. We can carry around a lot of emotional baggage in our hips without knowing it. Energetically, our hips connect our upper and lower bodies and that meeting point can become an area where unprocessed emotions or trauma is stored. For this reason, there is such a high potential for release through your hips. It’s not uncommon to feel emotions rise as you move your hips. Something I’ve been amazed by in my own personal life is how movement evokes emotion from me. Prior to moving, I have felt stuck, with pent up emotions, sometimes even knowing and WANTING to cry and release, but feeling unable to. I began noticing a pattern between the physical release of muscle groups in my body and the emotional release that came with them. If you’ve ever had tears trickle down the sides of your face while laying still in Savasana at the end of a yoga class - you are not alone!
After our yoga flow we dove right into our discussion about the vagus nerve and how to activate it. We also did some vagus nerve stimulating breathwork. I will include below exactly what I shared with the participants of the Weekly Zen session.
"There's one vagus nerve on each side of your body, running from your brainstem through your neck to your chest and abdomen. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it's time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience. Increasing vagal tone helps people to overcome anxiety, depression, inflammatory and digestive diseases and better manage them when they arise. There is also significant evidence to show that vagus nerve stimulation helps to treat uncontrolled epilepsy. I want us to understand a bit of the science behind the vagus nerve before I dive into how to stimulate your vagus nerve. I was able to gather some amazing information for you all in a study found in Frontiers in Psychiatry journal from 2018 titled “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” I will explain more about exactly how the vagus nerve functions and what it contributes to our overall health. But first, let’s talk about the difference between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for inciting relaxation, calmness, and a general feeling of safety. Your body is flowing freely, your muscles are loose, and your heart rate and digestive system are in check when your parasympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. When activated, it causes large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol to begin to rush through the body. It is necessary to activate the sympathetic nervous system at times, but we do not want to remain in this state. I am quoting directly from the article now:
'The vagus nerve is the main contributor of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as vasomotor activity, and certain reflex actions, such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting. The parasympathetic innervation causes a dilation of blood vessels and bronchioles and a stimulation of salivary glands. On the contrary, the sympathetic innervation leads to a constriction of blood vessels, a dilation of bronchioles, an increase in heart rate, and a constriction of intestinal and urinary sphincters. In the gastrointestinal tract, the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system increases bowel motility and glandular secretion. In contrast to it, the sympathetic activity leads to a reduction of intestinal activity and a reduction of blood flow to the gut, allowing a higher blood flow to the heart and the muscles, when the individual faces existential stress.'
Let’s go into what this is saying...essentially, that when we regulate our parasympathetic nervous system we are able to experience greater ease in breathing, a lower heart rate, relaxed as opposed to tense muscles, and decreased levels of stress hormones in our bodies. The way we regulate our parasympathetic nervous system is through developing vagal tone. Vagal tone simply refers to the continued practice and control of stimulating the vagus nerve. Just like a muscle needs to be toned, so do nerves. Today I am going to teach you guys how to stimulate and tone your vagus nerve. Before we hop right into it, I want to share another important section of the article with you guys.
'Both neural (vagus) and hormonal (HPA axis) lines of communication combine to allow the brain to influence the activities of intestinal functional effector cells, such as immune cells, epithelial cells, enteric neurons, and smooth muscle cells. These cells, on the other hand, are under the influence of the gut microbiota. The gut microbiota has an important impact on the brain–gut axis interacting not only locally with intestinal cells and ENS, but also by directly influencing neuroendocrine and metabolic systems. Emerging data supports the role of microbiota in influencing anxiety and depressive-like behaviors.'
I include this section, because I want to clarify that nutrition plays a HUGE role in mental and emotional health. We are quite literally what we eat. Stimulating the vagus nerve has an incredible impact on these pathways in your brain, but examining your nutrition and shifting towards a diet that will create a less acidic environment within your body makes a big difference as well. This means more fiber, healthy fats, and less sugar. We can talk more about great ways to work on a more alkaline body - feel free to reach out to me after if you’re interested. This is especially important for those suffering with disorders like Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, or IBS. Many of these disorders are affected by the foods we eat, but are also hugely affected by nervous system dysregulation. In order to even allow our systems the chance to heal in the first place - through things like a cleaned up diet - we must learn to regulate our nervous systems to allow proper blood flow to the gut and intestines and promote relaxed muscles that do not dispel food too quickly (diarrhea) or hold it in for too long (constipation). Up until about ten years ago, psychologists believed that all of the serotonin available in the body was generated in the brain, but recent science has proven that 90% of serotonin production occurs in the gut. That is amazing to think about! There is so much potential to heal through committing to repairing your gut-brain axis.
Now, let’s get into some breathwork that helps to stimulate the vagus nerve. The aim is to move the belly and diaphragm with the breath and to slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10. Sit up straight and envision your breath traveling all the way down into the bottom of your belly. Breathe in and out through your nose, not your mouth. Inhale deeply for 1-2-3-4-5. Hold for 1. Exhale as slowly as possible for 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. We will repeat this breathwork for ten cycles."
We finished the session with a 'Finding Clarity' guided meditation. The recording of this meditation can be found on the 'Guided Meditations' subpage of my website, along with others I have written! If there is anyone who feels as though they have something to share that falls into the realm of spirituality, healing, growth, or health - feel free to reach out to me. I understand it can be hard to start on your own, so I always extend the invite and opportunity to collaborate on one of the Weekly 'Zen sessions. I hope this message finds you in a place of peace. If not, try stimulating your vagus nerve! Sending positivity and healing to all.