What Is Low Vagal Tone And How To Improve Yours? - Neuvana

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January 12, 2023 12 min read

What Is Low Vagal Tone And How To Improve Yours?

The vagus nerve is a significant part of the body's autonomic nervous system. This system regulates a wide range of processes, from breathing and digestion to heart rate and blood pressure. This large cranial nerve consists of many branches extending from the brain down through the neck, chest, abdomen, and other body parts. The vagus nerve plays an integral role in controlling what is known as "vagal tone," or your resting level of activation in the parasympathetic nervous system.

When it comes to improving health and well-being, understanding your vagal tone can be key. Low vagal tone can lead to issues like stress, depression, poor sleep, and even cardiovascular diseases. So, to maintain good health, it is essential to understand why low vagal tone can occur and how it can be addressed. This is just one of many topics we'll explore in today's post, so keep reading for everything you want to know about harnessing the power of the vagus nerve.

What is Vagal Tone?

Vagal tone is a measure of how much activity is occurring in the parasympathetic nervous system at any given time. Technically, vagal tone refers specifically to the vagus nerve. But since this nerve is such a big part of that system, it is often discussed in relation to the parasympathetic nervous system as a whole. 

The lower your vagal tone (or activation level), the less control you might have over your autonomic functions like heart rate or digestion. On the other hand, the higher your activation level (or "tone"), the better control you could have over these functions. 

Factors such as stress or physical trauma can lead to lower levels of activation in this system—specifically low vagal tone—which has been associated with various health conditions. The good news is there are plenty of ways to improve your vagal tone and get your body back into balance, and we're going to explore them (and this special nerve) in great detail today. 

Vagus Nerve Function

Next, let's talk more about the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. Specifically, what is the function of the vagus nerve, and what is the role of the parasympathetic nervous system?

What is the function of the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is one of the longest and most complex cranial nerves, running from the brain through several areas in the body. It is also known as the "wandering" nerve because it has many branches that wander throughout the body. As part of the parasympathetic nervous system, its primary role is to regulate a wide range of bodily functions. These include digestion, heart rate, respiration, and more.

The Other 11 Cranial Nerves

Before we talk more about the vagus nerve, let's go over each of the other 11 cranial nerves. Though the vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves, each has its own specific functions.

1. The olfactory nerve

This nerve is in charge of your sense of smell and helps to detect odors. It is located near the back of the nose and is connected to the brain.

2. The optic nerve

Also known as the second cranial nerve, this nerve sends visual information from the eyes to the brain. There are two optic nerves, one for each eye.

3. The oculomotor nerve

This third cranial nerve helps control eye movements and also controls pupil diameter. It is located in front of each eye and connects to several parts of the brain.

4. The trochlear nerve

This fourth cranial nerve regulates eye movement by allowing us to look up and down, left and right. It's found at the base of each eye socket and connects to other parts of the brain.

5. The trigeminal nerve

This fifth cranial nerve is responsible for the sense of touch, helping us feel pain and other sensations, as well as helping us chew and speak. It is located in the face and connects to other parts of the brain.

6. The abducens nerve

This sixth cranial nerve helps to control eye movement by allowing us to look left and right. You'll find it at the base of each eye socket, and it connects with other parts of the brain.

7. The facial nerve

This seventh cranial nerve controls facial expressions, taste sensation, and salivation. It runs from the brain stem through areas around the face and mouth before connecting with muscles throughout the head and neck.

8. The vestibulocochlear nerve

This eighth cranial nerve sends information about balance and hearing from both ears to the brain. It's found near the inner ear and connects with other parts of the brain for processing this information.

9. The glossopharyngeal nerve

This ninth cranial nerve helps control swallowing, taste sensation in the throat, and muscles in the neck. It is located at the back of the throat near each ear and is connected to many areas in the brain.

10. The accessory nerve

This eleventh cranial nerve helps us move our shoulders, turn our heads from side to side, and control certain muscles in the neck. It connects to the brain stem and runs down both sides of the neck.

11. The hypoglossal nerve

This twelfth cranial nerve helps us control tongue movement, allowing us to swallow, speak and chew. It connects with many areas in the brain and is located near each ear.

Now, back to the 10th cranial nerve: the vagus nerve!

The Vagus Nerve's Signals

The vagus nerve is responsible for maintaining homeostasis by sending signals from the central nervous system (CNS) to different organs and systems in order to keep them balanced and functioning optimally. 

To do this, it uses two types of signaling: excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory signals stimulate activity in certain parts of the body, while inhibitory signals slow or reduce activity.

Digestion, emotion, and more

In terms of digestion, the vagus nerve helps maintain healthy gut bacteria by sending excitatory signals to promote motility (movement). It also sends inhibitory messages to slow down digestion when necessary. The vagus nerve also plays a key role in regulating heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and salivation; all these processes are regulated with both excitatory and inhibitory messages sent by this vital cranial nerve.

On an emotional level, the vagus nerve has been found to regulate emotions such as anxiety and fear responses. This "brake" on our emotions helps us stay calm even when faced with negative situations or stimuli. Last but not least, recent research has suggested that stimulation of the vagus nerve can help improve moods as well as treat conditions like chronic pain, epilepsy, and depression. We will discuss these and other vagus nerve stimulation benefits later in this article.

Overall, we can see how understanding how this amazing structure works can help us better understand how our bodies function and assist us in maintaining a proper balance between different bodily functions—both those we are conscious of and those largely outside our control.

What is the role of the parasympathetic nervous system?

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is part of the autonomic nervous system that conserves energy and maintains homeostasis within the body. It works in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the 'fight or flight' response when needed (we'll talk more about this in a moment). 

The PNS is responsible for restoring normal body functions, including those associated with digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration, after our body has reacted to an external stressor (such as fear or excitement).

The primary role of the PNS is to regulate bodily activities that don't require conscious effort or thought, such as digestion and breathing. It also plays an important role in cardiovascular health by regulating blood pressure and heart rate. The PNS also helps regulate emotions like anxiety through neurotransmitters like acetylcholine.

Tasks the PNS is responsible for include:

  • Slowing down the heart rate
  • Releasing hormones to promote digestion and restful sleep
  • Reducing inflammation in the body
  • Increasing blood flow to essential organs like the heart, lungs, and brain
  • Stimulating the release of digestive enzymes
  • Regulating moods through neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine

Through its multiple pathways, the PNS helps keep our bodies functioning optimally by maintaining a healthy balance between activity and rest. It also works in conjunction with other systems, like the endocrine system, to ensure every part of our body is operating as it should—keeping us healthy, active, and alert.

What about the sympathetic nervous system?

It's also worth discussing the sympathetic nervous system in more detail to compare and contrast its function with that of the PNS. 

The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system and is responsible for preparing the body for action. For example, it activates the 'fight or flight' response we mentioned, releasing hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline that increase heart rate and blood pressure to enhance performance during times of danger or stress.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to ensure optimal body functioning. 

For example, when faced with a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in first and prepares us for action by increasing our heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. Once the danger has passed, it's then up to the parasympathetic nervous system to restore balance in our bodies by slowing down these processes again. In this way, they work together to maintain homeostasis and keep us healthy.

Back to the Parasympathetic Nervous System

As we know, the vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves in the PNS—and one of its most important—that carry out sensory information from multiple organs in different parts of our body back up to our brain, where other neurological centers can process it. This communication network plays a major role in maintaining homeostasis throughout our bodies and enables us to react quickly in response to external stimuli (such as danger).

Aside from responding quickly when something unexpected occurs outside your body, such as a sudden noise or change in temperature; the parasympathetic nervous system plays an essential role in calming bodily functions during long-term stressful events like exams or job interviews. This can help protect us against over-excitation caused by too much stimulation for too long.

It can be said that without an effective functioning parasympathetic nervous system, communication within our body would be impaired, leading to a wide range of physical and mental health problems, from poor digestion and heart disease to anxiety disorders and depression. Thus understanding how this important aspect of our autonomic nervous system works can help us better look after ourselves both physically and mentally!

So, if the vagus nerve is functioning correctly, why do some people have low vagal tone?

Low vagal tone occurs when the activity of the vagus nerve is reduced or suppressed, leading to impaired communication between the brain and other parts of our body. 

This can happen due to a number of factors, including chronic stress, depression, poor diet, and environmental toxins. In addition, low levels of vagal tone can lead to various health issues related to the organs that it affects, such as digestive problems, heart problems, hormone imbalances, and more.

Low vagal tone can also affect cognitive functions like memory, focus, and concentration, impacting our mental health. Additionally, low vagal tone has been linked with increased inflammation in the body which is another factor that increases risk of disease.

So, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be worth looking at ways to improve your vagal tone, and we'll share nine of them with you next!

9 Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Stimulating the vagus nerve can bring many health benefits, including improved digestion, lowered cortisol levels (stress hormone), improved heart rate and blood pressure, enhanced cognitive functioning, and better immune system response. 

Cold exposure

One of the easiest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve is by exposing yourself to cold temperatures. This can be done through activities like taking a cool shower or a cold plunge.

Deep, slow breathing

Another easy method for stimulating the vagus nerve is through deep, slow breathing. Taking slow and purposeful breaths help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and improving overall well-being. 

Singing, chanting, humming, and gargling

Singing, chanting, humming and gargling are also effective ways to stimulate the vagus nerve as they activate muscles within your neck and throat region, increasing activity on this cranial nerve.

Probiotics

Probiotics also help improve vagal tone by increasing healthy bacteria within your gut that help regulate stress responses. There are many probiotic-rich food sources like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt, or you can take a supplement.

Omega-3s

Eating foods high in omega-3s, like salmon or flax seeds, can also improve activity on this crucial nerve, as omega-3s have been shown to reduce inflammation. Interestingly, omega-3s can also improve communication between the gut and brain, further supporting better vagal tone.

Massage

Massage therapy has been found to positively affect increasing activity along the vagus nerve. At the same time, physical exercise and movement help release endorphins that can help improve mental clarity and mood.

Socializing and laughing

Lastly, socializing with friends or laughing is another valuable way of stimulating this critical cranial nerve as it sends signals back up from various organs in our belly and chest region to our brain, improving communication between these two parts of our body!

Electrical Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Those who suffer from serious medical conditions such as epilepsy or treatment-resistant depression might turn to surgical vagus nerve stimulation to help relieve their symptoms. This involves implanting a tiny device that sends electrical currents to the vagus nerve, which helps reduce inflammation, improve mood, and even help with pain management.

However, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) options are available for those who want to experience the benefits of electrical vagus nerve stimulation without surgery. Not to mention, the surgical route is used for people with serious medical conditions. But even those who simply want to feel better, recover faster, improve their sleep, or reap other rewards of VNS can do so with tVNS.

tVNS with Xen by Neuvana

Xen byNeuvanais a wearablevagus nerve stimulation device designed to help improve overall well-being and reduce stress. This handheld device sends a gentle electrical current through the vagus nerve, which is implemented as a form of therapy known as neuromodulation. The current sent by Xen targets the vagus nerve through the ear with its special headphones. 

These signals can then help regulate the heart rate, respiration, and digestion while helping reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being. In addition, Xen sessions are customizable and controllable, allowing users to select their preferred strength levels of stimulation. With regular use, this device has been shown to reduce stress levels, improve cognitive functioning, and enhance emotional balance, among other benefits. 

Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

On that note, let's explore some of the significant benefits of vagus nerve stimulation in more detail.

Anti-inflammatory

Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have found stimulating thevagus nerve reduces cytokines, molecules secreted by cells to initiate inflammation. In addition, it can also reduce C-reactive protein levels, a marker of inflammation in the body. This means regular vagus nerve stimulation may benefit those suffering from chronic inflammation or autoimmune diseases.

Mental health benefits

There are also mental health benefits associated with vagus nerve stimulation. Studies have found stimulating the vagus nerve can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It also has been shown to reduce stress levels and improve emotional balance.

In fact, VNS became only the second medical device to be FDA-approved for treatment-resistant depression in 2001.Prior to that,"VNS Therapy received FDA approval in1997 for use as an adjunctive therapy in reducing the frequency of partial onset seizures which are refractory to anti-seizure medications in adults and adolescents over 12 years of age."

Improved sleep

The vagus nerve is closely connected to our circadian rhythm, so stimulating it may help us establish a more regular sleep schedule.Research has found increased activity along the vagus nerve helps treat insomnia as well as other issues related to erratic sleeping patterns.

Enhanced cognitive functioning

Studies have also shown stimulating the vagus nerve can improve mental clarity and enhance cognitive performance. This suggests regularly stimulating the vagus nerve could help people struggling with focus or concentration issues.

As this2018 study reports:

"Vagus nerve stimulation patients significantly improved on cognitive and clinical measures. Learning and memory improved rapidly after 1 month of stimulation, and other cognitive functions improved gradually over time. Cognitive improvements were sustained up to 2 years of treatment." 

Better digestion

VNS is also linked to better digestion, as stimulating this nerve can help regulate the gut microbiome. In addition, the vagus nerve is responsible for sending signals from the digestive tract to the brain. Therefore, increased activity along this nerve can lead to improved digestion, better absorption of nutrients, and faster healing of any issues.

Faster recovery

Another exciting benefit of vagus nerve stimulation is that it can help speed up recovery after an illness or injury. Research has found that stimulating this nerve helps trigger the body's healing mechanisms, which in turn can help reduce pain and inflammation, boost immunity, and promote faster recovery.

Conclusion: What Is Low Vagal Tone And How To Improve Yours?

Vagus nerve stimulation is a powerful and versatile tool for improving physical and mental well-being. As we can see, numerous potential benefits are associated with increasing activity along this nerve. From anti-inflammatory effects to improved cognitive functioning, better sleep, and faster recovery - vagus nerve stimulation promises to be an effective treatment for various conditions.

If you're looking to boost your vagal tone, the good news is there are simple steps you can take. Regular exercise, yoga, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and spending time in nature have all been found to increase activity along the vagus nerve. In addition, trying out VNS or certain supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids may also help improve your vagal tone. And, of course, tVNS is an incredible option worth considering.

Ultimately, vagus nerve stimulation can be a beneficial tool to have in your health arsenal, making it easier for you to stay healthy and well-balanced. With the right approach and self-care practices, you may find stimulating this nerve will help you lead a healthier and happier life.

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