Maximizing mental and physical wellness by tapping into the power of the vagus nerve
Do you know which group of people studies and applies practices based on the intricacies of the nervous system?
Athletes, especially professional and elite athletes who are at the forefront in biohacking, are quite curious and knowledgeable about improving their vagal tone.
Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. This nerve is the key element of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest system, the one you want engaged most of the time. Its counter is the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight state.
Vagal tone is measured through the different things it affects, such as heart rate and heart rate variability. A slower heart rate and a greater heart rate variability indicate a healthier vagal tone and a better functioning vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve affects many many other systems and functions in the body.
If you switch into a fight-or-flight state and then back into a rest-and-digest state quickly, that’s good. It means your body can gear up to deal with a threat and gear down to maintain itself. It means you can get in and out of a stress state effectively.
How quickly someone bounces back after stress—and enters relaxation through the parasympathetic nervous system—is believed to be a factor in athletic performance.
What this means to me as an ordinary person is that by using the same strategies, I could improve my response to my own stressors, which are not nearly as extreme as someone pushing their body to the very limit in a high-stakes competition with thousands watching. In fact, many of the techniques athletes use are also employed in trauma therapy. We can learn from experts in these disciplines how to improve our own mental health in ways that influence our physical healing.
Bouncing back after the collective trauma of the pandemic is likely going to require additional tools to help cope with anxiety as we work through our individual and collective fears and triggers, some that are just surfacing and others that are persisting.
There’s a lot of agreement about tips and techniques that can improve vagal tone and bring the nervous system into balance. Much of that centers around heart rate variability, HRV, as an accurate measure of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which comprises the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest).
The more heart rate variability or HRV a person has, the more adaptable they are and the better able they are to recover from stress, generally speaking.
At-home devices can measure HRV, and they are often used by athletes who want to improve performance and recovery. Tracking HRV can help avoid overtraining, track progress over time, reveal trends, and generally help someone make better decisions about well-being while still working toward fitness goals.
A heart rate of 60 beats per minute suggests one beat per second. However, some beats might be less than a second apart and others more than a second apart. Recognize, though, that adaptability goes beyond just heart rate.
A healthy heart isn’t necessarily a consistent one; rather a heart that reacts and recovers from stressors quickly causing varying rates is considered healthiest. That’s where high HRV scores come from, and they indicate longevity, resilience, fitness, and even strong mental health. Low HRV scores correspond with inflammation and risk of chronic disease.
HRV and the vagus nerve are linked, because the 10th cranial nerve helps the heart function, as well as all the digestive organs, starting with the throat. It’s also involved in breathing, as it wanders throughout the torso as a long communication highway between the organs and the brain. Using the breath to slow the heart rate is one of many techniques that involve the vagus nerve.
Leah Lagos, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Heart, Breath, Mind,” specializes in health and performance psychology and HRV biofeedback. She’s published studies and articles on the effect of HRV biofeedback on traumatic brain injury, boosting confidence, post-concussion syndrome, and athletic performance. Her stance is that stress resides in the body, not the brain, and that addressing the body can enhance cognitive capabilities.
One case study she’s participated in, Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback as a Strategy for Dealing with Competitive Anxiety: A Case Study, published in Biofeedback in 2008 followed a 14-year-old golfer who received only biofeedback training leading up to a competition and no golf instruction. In addition to once-a-week sessions of breathing exercises and HRV measurements over 10 weeks, he also did sessions at home for 20 minutes twice daily. Data suggest it may have enhanced his ability to cope with stress and improve his performance, as his autonomic regulation normalized.
As powerful as vagal tone is, it’s important to also recognize the nerve is just one part of a masterful system that has many components, according to Jonnie Goodmanson, founder of Live Free Trainings, which offers online courses for ordinary people to learn body intelligence and anatomy and physiology for fitness.
The vagus nerve “is doing a lot of things, but it’s calming you down. It works on its own,” she said. “Anything you mindfully do with intention and taking your time, you’re going to stimulate that vagus nerve. It’s not like you’re just stimulating the vagus nerve.”
Other nerves may also be stimulated that control vision, olfactory, taste, and hearing. The vagus nerve is one part of the entire autonomic nervous system, which also includes neurotransmitters enhancing communication within the system. Understanding the vagal nerve in its context helps foster appreciation for the body and its inner workings, Goodmanson says.
The autonomic nervous system has a defensive mechanism designed to protect us. The brain stem and retina work in concert to determine potential threats, and if the threat becomes imminent, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Heart rate, blood pressure, and circulation all increase. Pupils dilate. And when fight or flee is not an option, the parasympathetic nervous system engages and the person freezes muscles and breath.
None of these decisions are cognitive. It’s simply the job of the nervous system. That’s why “hacking” the nervous system might be able to undo an imbalance if a person gets stuck in the adaptive state. Biohacking is a broad term for manipulating the body or brain without using traditional medicine to improve health or longevity.
There are basic things you can do to improve vagal tone, such as eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, drinking enough water, meditating, and doing breathing exercises.
6 Ways to Improve Vagal Tone
Here are some other more specific suggestions from experts to help you improve your ability to gear down into your rest-and-digest state for overall better health.
- Join a community: Being in a support group is an easy way to soothe anxiety, according to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. Simply talking about symptoms and understanding that your own trauma responses are normal within the context of what you have experienced can offer relief.
- Audible exhales: Jonnie Goodmanson, founder of Live Free Trainings suggests adding a sigh, humming, or singing to the exhale to enhance the parasympathetic effect of breathing.
- Add eye movement to breath: Take deep, long breaths while alternating bringing the gaze all the way up to the left and then to the right. Goodmanson said this is more effective because the optic and vagal nerves are working together.
- Loving-kindness meditation: Studies show this particular meditation alters neural systems important for empathy and compassion and appears to aid in emotional regulation.
- Consistent yoga: One study found that 10 weeks of yoga practice significantly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment.
- Perform any activity mindfully: Goodmanson suggests making dinner in a mindful way, approaching it the same way as a yoga pose. Mindfulness has been found to improve dissociation, a persistent symptom of trauma.
Approaching your body as an ally rather than an enemy is a good first step in noticing the effects of anxiety and trauma. Integrating mind and body can foster a grace-filled empathy for your experience as you begin the process of undoing damage done by trauma.
Mascaro et al. “The neural mediators of kindness-based meditation: a theoretical model.” Frontiers in Psychology 2015 Feb.
B.A. van der Kolk, et al. Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for PTSD. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry June 2014: 559-65.
Harvard Health Publishing. Heart rate variability: How it might indicate well-being. 2021 Dec.
Lezama. “What is Heart Rate Variability? | The Definitive Guide to HRV.” EHRV. 2022 March.
Lagos. Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback as a Strategy for Dealing with Competitive Anxiety: A Case Study. Biofeedback. 2008 January.