The Vagus Nerve: Your Body’s Portal to Wellbeing

rē•spin your nervous system through toning the vagus nerve.

By: Julia Childs-Heyl, MSW
The Vagus Nerve: Your Body’s Portal to Wellbeing

Our bodies have innate wisdom, a knowledge of how to heal many ailments when adequately supported. An essential component of our healing abilities is the vagus nerve. It is the main nerve of our parasympathetic nervous system and the longest cranial nerve in our entire body. It serves as a highway of information that connects the stem of our brain to the rest of our body, signaling when there is danger and when all is safe and sound. 

Our vagus nerve is in direct communication with our parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “brakes” of our body, encouraging a state of rest and digestion. In contrast, our nervous system is the “gas” dictating our fight or flight response. Therefore, if we want to experience a sense of ease throughout our day, feel at home in our physical vessel, and increase our resilience, we must tap into our parasympathetic nervous system. rē-spinning our vagus nerve through physical practices, emotional care, and herbal offerings is where it all begins.

Understanding the Vagus Nerve

“It is our calming source that guides our organs and tells them it is okay to slow down or be at rest,” explains Blair Lord LCSW, a psychotherapist certified in Polyvagal-Informed Practice, when asked about the function of the vagus nerve. She expressed that it is also an essential aspect of our social functioning since our primal survival instincts require us to assess our environment for safety constantly. When our vagus nerve is toned, meaning it is in a healthy state of functioning, we are no longer in a survival state and can instead calmly assess who and what around us are safe resources to connect with. 

Assessing Your Body’s Needs

The first step of toning the vagus nerve is to assess your vagal tone. “The most reliable source of measuring vagal tone is your Heart Rate Variability (HRV),” Lord explains. Different than our heart rate, a high HRV indicates vagal nerve health. You can check your HRV through HeartMath or Flowly.

Another indicator of having a low vagal tone is experiencing chronic illnesses, signs of chronic inflammation, and stress. Emotional responses are also linked to the vagus nerve. Suppose you struggle to self-soothe, meaning you tend to exist in a heightened state of emotions. In that case, your vagus nerve may need some extra TLC. Even issues with controlling impulses – think along the lines of firing off that email without considering the consequences or diving headfirst into a fiery romance that may burn you to a crisp – can indicate low vagal tone. If any of this sounds familiar, fret not. Your body is resilient and can begin to shift into a more balanced state of being with just a little support. 

Toning The Pathway of Healing

Readjusting your relationship to your vagus nerve means reorienting how you view your lifestyle habits. For example, we’ve all heard the importance of eating well, moving our bodies, and sleeping. “What we are really trying to do is minimize the cues from the environment around us and increase what our body interprets as safety and comfort,” Michael Allison from The Polyvagal Institute explains. 

Imagine your primal mind, the one connected to your most animalistic needs, the part of our humanity that once thrived in community and lived off the land. Then, think about what is needed to survive in this wild world. Sleep, nourishing food, healthy movement, and social connection all come to mind. 

“I like to think of stimulating the vagus nerve through both bottom-up approaches through the body and top-down approaches through the mind,” Allison suggested. 

Expert Insight

Both Allison and Lord shared some of their favorite techniques for toning your vagus nerve through the mind and body. Take what you like and incorporate it into your daily routine. 

Bottom-Up Toning Ideas

  • Find your voice through singing and humming. Listen, not everyone is an innately talented singer. Don’t let that stop you from trying, though. Let your voice stretch through singing or enjoy the soothing vibrations of humming.
  • Give your body a break with intermittent fasting. When your body isn’t having to digest food for a brief time, it gets a chance to slow down, inviting a sense of calm into your being. 
  • Move and flow. Exercise challenges our bodies, but that is a good thing. By taxing our heart rate and breathing for a short amount of time before entering a rest phase, our body begins to develop greater resilience and tolerance.
  • Easy listening. No, we’re not talking about elevator music, but we are talking about sounds that are soft on your eardrums. Sounds are a way our body recognizes threats and safety. When tapping into our primal ways of being centuries ago, lower frequencies (think deep drums and bass) signaled a predator was near. Meanwhile, high-pitched noises signaled a lack of safety, often indicating a disturbance in our environment. Soothing music void of low base or high pitches can help our bodies settle and slow down. Allison suggests soft classical music or songs that have tones reminiscent of lullabies. 

Top-Down Toning Approaches

  • Minimize distractions and maximize mindfulness. Doing so allows your nervous system to let its guard down and enter that optimal rest and digest zone.
  • Tend to your mental health. Psychotherapy can help you work through any past pain points contributing to a lack of overall health. Our body keeps the score when it comes to emotional wounds. Let a professional guide you towards mental healing.
  • Laugh and play. Being lighthearted is an excellent indicator of safety. We only laugh and joke when we feel exceptionally safe. 
  • Connect with others. By nature, human beings are social. Breaking bread with family, volunteering at a community garden, or taking a weekend escape with friends are all ways to tone the vagus nerve from the top-down.

Other Important Offerings

Much of the research on vagus nerve health focuses on daily practices but seldom offers insight into natural supplements. It is time we rē-think this approach. There is such brilliance in the natural resources our earth presents, some of which include deeply nourishing herbs. We reached out to Adriana Ayales, founder of Anima Mundi Apothecary, to learn more. 

Nervines are a particular class of herbs that can help restore, nourish, and repair the nervous system,” she explained. These herbs tackle the vagus nerve in supporting the nervous system, thus sustaining our overall health and well-being. 

She let us know that there are a few different kinds of nervines:

rē•spin the Mind-Body Connection

When toning the vagus nerve, we suggest starting slow and building a consistent routine that works for you. If you’re unsure or feel you could use a little help, reach out to a professional – after all, this article isn’t a substitute for any medical guidance. Besides, there are so many companions that could be the perfect guide on this journey. Somatic therapists can help you lean into body-based healing practices further. Psychotherapists will guide you toward the root of the hurt. Herbalists will work with you closely to develop the best formula for your unique experience. 

Where you go, there you are, and that is the exact beauty of life. Enjoy your journey inward. 

Image source: @nikki.cruz

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