Whilst our sympathetic nervous system stimulates the body into action (flight or fight), the parasympathetic nervous system helps to decrease breathing and heart rate, and supports digestive function. The vagus nerve helps to modulate the parasympathetic nervous system and communicates signals between the brain and many of the important organs throughout the body, including the gastro-intestinal tract (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs.
A measure of vagal nerve activity is called vagal tone and indicates the ratio between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system signals. Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). When you breathe in , your heart beats faster to pump oxygenated blood around your body. As you breathe out, the heart slows down. The vagus nerve is incredibly important for regulating our heart rate; and activating the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve helps your heart and breathing to slow down. Increasing your vagal tone can lower heart rate, and better HRV means that your body can relax faster after stress.
Whilst some people have a stronger vagal tone, this decreases as we age. If you have low vagal tone, the vagus nerve might not be performing optimally which could lead to an amplified stress response. This could impact your health in many ways including depression, anxiety, gut issues and inflammation. The physical effects of anxiety including faster breathing and heart rate, churning feeling in the stomach, nausea, needing the toilet more can be explained by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. There is evidence to show that stimulating the vagus nerve could be potential treatment pathway for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and inflammatory bowel disease. Increasing vagal tone by meditation, breathwork, yoga, cold water exposure and other methods including singing and chanting, could contribute to our ability to regulate stress and manage anxiety, and therefore our vagal tone is linked to our resilience and support with anxiety[i] and mood[ii].
Using Sensate regularly to activate your vagus nerve can improve your vagal tone, reduce stress and increase resilience. Expectant mothers that are depressed, anxious and angry have lower vagal tone and when their baby is born, they also have lower vagal tone and lower levels of dopamine and serotonin[iii]. There is a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions and optimal physical and mental health. The more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve and this further improves vagal tone.
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[i] George MS, Ward HE, Ninan PT, Pollack M, Nahas Z, Anderson B, et al. A pilot study of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) for treatment-resistant anxiety disorders. Brain Stimulat (2008) 1:112–21.10.1016
[ii] Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, Catalino LI, Vacharkulksemsuk T, Algoe SB, et al. How positive build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychol Sci(2013) 24:1123–32.10
[iii] Field T, Diego M Vagal activity, early growth and emotional development – Infant behaviour and development 2008 Sep 31 (3) 361 - 373