What is the vagus nerve?
What is vagal tone?
How can breathing help increase vagal tone and improve rest and recovery?
How can Conscious Connected Breathing affect our subconscious breath patterns to improve organ and gland function and balance the nervous system?
Our Vagus nerve is our 10th cranial nerve and it travels from our brain, down our neck, and throughout our chest and abdomen. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system is the system in the body that stimulates our fight-or-flight response, meaning that when stimulated, it will engage the nervous system to fight or flee from a predator, having the effect of increasing pupil size, dilated skeletal muscle blood vessels, dilates bronchioles via circulating adrenaline, and increase the rate and force of contraction of the heart, increase the stress hormone cortisol, decrease immune function, all of which prepare the body for activity. On the contrary, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is largely responsible for the regulation of several body compartments at rest, to help digest, and recover. The parasympathetic helps to in:
Stress levels and hormone function by influencing the HPA function (hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal axis) – the main system involves in our stress response
Digestion – Increases stomach acidity, stimulates the migrating motor complex and helps with digestive enzyme production
Heart – Stabilizes heart rate variability and blood pressure
Blood sugar levels – Stimulates blood sugar balance in
Gall bladder function – Controls bile in Gall Bladder to help break down fats
Kidney function – Promotes water balance in the kidneys
Bladder function – Controls voiding of urine
Spleen function helps to reduce inflammation
Sexual function – Influences fertility and sexual pleasure
The nervous system ideally maintains a state of dynamic equilibrium between sympathetic and parasympathetic. An example to elucidate this equilibrium can be found in weight lifting, wherein working out is active, and thus sympathetic. If we were to over work out, our body would continually be breaking down without repairing. However, if we are always relaxing, and resting, we are never challenging our body and then we become too parasympathetic, and this is not ideal either. There is a dynamic equilibrium that is reached in optimal conditions, wherein we veer to one periphery to the other, working out hard, and then allowing the pendulum to swing the other way and recovery and achieve balance once again. Without the swinging of the pendulum there is no growth, and stagnation results.
The teaching of yin and yang comes through in discussion of this balance. In general, we have a society that has become too yang, too sympathetic, and the resultant effect is an imbalance in the body, which shows up as an imbalance in the nervous system, which will show up as in imbalance in our breath cycle. Let’s jump back to the working out example, when you are working hard at your job, your releasing cortisol, which is both a primary stress hormone, which has a beneficial function of being energizing, but it also suppresses the immune system and has deleterious effects when produced in high doses for long periods. If your over-working yourself at your job, then you decide you want to go to the gym and pound kettle-bells, it must be realized that working out is also sympathetic and produces cortisol and thus the pendulum is swinging very far from center and you risk over-working your body, burning out, or getting ill.
The teaching that comes through here is the awareness of knowing and listening to what your body needs, if your stress levels are high, yoga or light training, may be the ideal prescription for body for maximize efficiency and effectiveness in your life to keep your in balance.
One of my first awareness exercises in coaching is to present the polarities of yin and yang to a client, and get them to go through their days/weeks and consider how balanced their life is, from there we do two things, we discuss specific strategies to bring balance to each day, and then we work on building a sense of deep listening to their body. While consciously planning a week to have more time to balance seems good, the hard part is calculating how stressed you’ll be on any given day, sometimes you don’t sleep well, or there is an emergency, or an activity that is normally relaxing, becomes stressful. Therefore, developing a practice that brings you into your mind, body, and emotion is a way of connected with yourself to make better decisions (see the article I wrote about our 3 ‘brains’ head-heart-gut). This method is superior because we can make decisions that fit our present conditions. Body-centering practices like meditation, yoga, qigong, and other similar practices help to develop a deep sense of listening to our self, which is a quality of character with immense value across multiple domains.
I chose to mention meditation, yoga, and qigong because they all involve conscious breathing. Our breath is our greatest tool to balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems – but more on that soon.
Another strategy for balancing the nervous system is to increase our vagal tone.
What is vagal tone?
Vagal Tone refers to the degree of activity exerted by the parasympathetic nervous system, ei. the more vagal tone the more parasympathetic our body becomes. If our vagal tone is weak, we can think of it as having a negative effect on our mindbody connection, this will affect conditions such as:
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
There are several ways to influence your vagal tone, increase your parasympathetic activity, and improve your health and well being. Techniques include, cold thermogenesis through cold exposure, some probiotics, and some forms of acupuncture
Breathing and the vagus nerve
Our breath can influence our vagal tone through a phenomenon termed Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). RSA is a naturally occurring variation in heart rate that occurs during a breathing cycle. Heart rate increases during inspiration (sympathetic) and decreases during expiration (parasympathetic). Thus, by prolonging our expiration in relation to our inspiration, we can increase our parasympathetic activity.
Bringing it all together.
Our nervous system exists in two polarizing conditions, parasympathetic and sympathetic, the ideal state of growth and maintenance in our nervous system is one of dynamic equilibrium between these two conditions.
Most people in our society and culture are inclined towards being overly sympathetic.
Our balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic is related to how we breath in and breath out. We can directly affect our nervous system, our vagal tone, and increase our parasympathetic nervous system through breathwork, yoga, and qigong. These practices also carry with them body-mind-and emotion centering qualities, which engage our entire nervous system to make good decisions.
But here’s a problem.
Most the time when we need to relax, is when we don’t have an opportunity to do yoga or meditation, we are often concentrating on some task and don’t have time to pay attention to our breathing. This is where developing a deep connected with your body, your breath, and becoming a witness is important to develop in your meditation practices, so that you can bring that same one-pointed awareness of your entire body-mind-emotion all at once.
We breath 23,000-26,000 breaths per day, and most of them are subconscious, and 1/3 are in our sleep. Most of breathing then, is subconscious and automatic. Most people breath in a fraction of their lung capacity, I’ve read reports of as little as 40-60% of full capacity. I’ve written before on these teachings I learnt from my breathwork teacher Edward Dangerfield, but our breathing is essential for not only the balance of our nervous system, but also the normal functioning of all our glands and their hormones. When it comes to a hierarchy of importance, breathing, above food, water, and all else is needed to maintaining and balancing our nervous system. That is why breath is my central focus, by changing the breath, we can balance all other systems (mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual). Conscious connected breathwork, in the style that I facilitate can improve total lung capacity, thus improving all our organ and gland systems, and it can change our subconscious breath patterns to bring balance to our nervous system.
I hope this article has helped you to bring awareness to your balance, to point you back into your body, and to realize the power of your breath to bring about balance and health. Message me if you have any breath questions, coaching questions, or want to try a 1-on-1 breathwork session.