By Dr Carrie Rigoni, Chiropractor
The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body, and it is strongly connected to our health and vitality. Today I am sharing my tips for how to stimulate your vagus nerve for better emotional and physical wellbeing.
Mums are notoriously burnt out, I mean, being “on” 24/7 to ensure our kids are ok is a huge undertaking. Not to mention the sleep deprivation, postpartum nutrient depletion, and the juggle of the rest of our lives thrown in there too!
What I find in my practice is that many mums don’t even know about the vagus nerve and what it can do for their daily health. And me? Well it’s my favourite thing in the world. Firstly because it makes you feel SO GOOD when it’s working well, and secondly because it doesn’t take much to get it to start firing up for those good feels.
The vagus nerve
The vagus nerve runs from your brainstem, through your neck, thorax and abdomen, all the way to your pelvic floor. It has connections to every organ in the body, and supports the body with maintaining all those automatic processes such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and immune response.
But? For every one fibre that exits the brain and connects to an organ, there are nine fibres that send messages from organs up the vagus through to the brain, telling the brain what is going on in the body. So the vagus nerve is very much a sensory nerve, giving feedback about the state of the body (eg. inflammation, infections, stress).
This is important because the other important function of the vagus nerve is it’s ability to sense the environment. You know when you have a gut feeling that something doesn’t feel right? Or you feel uncomfortable around certain people but you can’t put your finger on it? That is your dear vagus nerve kicking in (and consider this my permission slip for you should listen to it).
In terms of maternal depletion and burn out, the vagus nerve plays a big role in keeping us out of a sympathetic dominant state, and back into a state of rest and healing. In fact, the easiest way to know whether your vagus nerve needs help or not is to consider how long it takes for you to get out of the stress response, if you can at all.
Vagal tone refers to how well your vagus nerve is functioning.
If you have a quick stress response, maybe your child is running away from you towards a busy road, it is healthy and normal for your body to kick into gear and use the sympathetic nervous system to help you help your child.
The key in the process is having the vagus nerve kick in AFTERWARDS, to allow your body to come back to a calmer, lower-stress state. Ie the parasympathetic nervous system. A vagus nerve with high tone will do this process very easily (and you’ll notice the chill people who seem to calm down immediately), whereas a vagus nerve with low tone will struggle to kick in, leaving you in a stressed out state long after the incident has occurred.
This is an issue because we know chronic stress is no good for our overall health and wellbeing!
The link between the vagus nerve and maternal depletion
So we now know that the vagus nerve keeps us out of the chronic stress response. But what it also does it keep our immune system in check (especially the gut microbiome and gut-immune system), reduces our pain responses, keeps our inflammation in check and plays a big role in social engagement – eye contact, wanting to reach out to friends and family, wanting to have conversations with others.
Symptoms of a low-functioning vagus nerve include:
- Chronic inflammation
- Leaky gut
- Food intolerances
- Tired but wired
- Depression and anxiety
- Increased pain
- Migraines and headaches
- Unexplained weight gain
- Feelings of isolation or wanting to isolate yourself from your support network
- Feeling depleted and fatigued no matter what you do, what you eat, or how much sleep you get
How to stimulate your vagus nerve to help motherhood feel easier, happier and calmer
If you feel like the vagus nerve is struggling a bit, let’s look at what you can do to support it and start feeling like yourself again! You don’t have to do all of these, but choose a few that resonate most with you and commit to doing them daily.
- Eat a low-inflammation diet where you can
- This supports your gut bacteria and decreases stress on the vagus nerve
- Get sleep where you can
- Prioritise it, even if it feels selfish – it makes all the difference
- Singing (loud) and dancing
- Turn the music up, and sing sing sing!
- The quickest and easiest way to do this is in the shower
- Make sure you get that water right to the back of your throat – the key here is stimulating the gag response
- Cold showers or dips in the ocean
- Nasal breathing
- Take check and see if you breathe through your nose or your mouth
- Consciously seal your lips during the day to breathe exclusively through your nose
- Weighted blankets
- Eye exercise
- The vagus nerve is stimulated when our eyes look horizontal (ie the opposite of scrolling, which actually decreases our vagus nerve tone)
- Stand up, lift your chin a little and place your hands behind your head
- Keep your head still, move your eyes to the right and find something to hold your focus on
- When your vagus nerve kicks in, you will sigh, or yawn, or feel a calm wash over you
- Then move eyes to the other side and hold again
Doing one or two of these exercises daily will support your vagus nerve and having you feeling more regulated and (hopefully) less depleted. Please note there are some bigger things that affect the vagus nerve that I didn’t touch on in this blog, so if you feel nothing at all it’s likely something else is causing your vagus nerve to be inhibited (in this case it would be worth getting in touch with a practitioner who works with the vagus nerve).
You can also use these exercises in times of stress – for example if you feel like you can’t calm yourself down, or you can’t fall asleep – these exercises come in handy to bring yourself back into balance.
How is your vagus? Could it do with some love and attention?
Dr Carrie Rigoni is a chiropractor for mums and babies in Perth WA. She works using Applied Kinesiology and Functional Neurology, and has a fondness for the vagus nerve. Her practice is full of children from newborns to teenagers, and mothers from preconception through pregnancy and into the postpartum period. However, absolutely everyone is welcome! She is passionate about educating parents on raising healthy children, and offers a number of online masterclasses (and one online course – Fearless Foodies – learn how introducing food influences your baby’s gut, hormones, brain, and indirectly their vagus nerve!).