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The Relationship Between Your Vagal Tone and Mental Health

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Updated on May 2, 2022
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Vagal Tone & Mental Health

Your body contains 12 cranial nerves. These nerves are responsible for sending messages from your brain to other parts of your body for a variety of purposes.

Some of these 12 cranial nerves send and receive sensory messages about sensory function. Others of these cranial nerves send messages about motor functions like the control of certain muscles.

The vagus nerve is unique because it's involved in both sensory and motor function messages.

The vagus nerve, which sends messages to organs throughout the body, reaches vagal tone when there's good vagal nerve activity and this nerve is functioning well. Read on to learn more about the vagus nerve, its functions, and its connection to your physical and mental health.

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve, one of the cranial nerves, is the longest nerve in the body. It runs from the brainstem all the way down to the abdomen in the body.

This nerve is responsible for receiving and monitoring information about several organs in the body including:

  • The heart
  • The lungs
  • Other internal organs

The role of the vagus nerve is to help your body orchestrate its responses so you're able to stay safe and get warned of potential danger.

Your brain is constantly monitoring for dangerous situations. You've heard of the fight or flight response in a dangerous situation. The vagus nerve is responsible for your response to situations.

In one scenario, you might want to flee, while in another you're able to stay calm enough to process a potentially dangerous situation.

Why Is the Vagus Nerve Important?

You should think of the brain and the messages that go to and from it as the body's super highway.

The vagus nerve, the longest in the body, travels and has pathways throughout the whole body. In Latin, vagus means wanderer, which is much like what this nerve does in the body.

These pathways throughout the body are responsible for:

  • Promoting health
  • Restoring health
  • Addressing the physiologic unease that gives rise to anxiety

When you're in situations of extreme calm, this gets transmitted to the brain stem which helps to perpetuate neural calm.

When the brain's presented with a situation of extreme danger, the signals tell the body to be on high alert, to be wary. In true danger, the brain's message through the vagus nerve creates the fight or flight response.

Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve is a part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The autonomic nervous system is made up of two divisions.

The first division is the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for stimulating the body so it can react to situations of danger.

The second division is the parasympathetic nervous system which lowers the heart rate, decreases the breathing rate, and supports digestion.

The highly sensitive vagus nerve picks up information from parts of the body like the lungs, liver, intestines, and heart, then delivers it to the brain for analysis. The brain then sends messages back into the body for the response.

The vagal tone in the body is the ratio between sympathetic and parasympathetic signals.

When you breathe in and out, your body is moving blood with oxygen throughout your body. The vagus nerve is involved in whether the heart rate is elevated or calm.

How well you adapt your heart rate from the messages sent from your brain is called the heart rate variability (HRV).

When you achieve a better vagal tone, then you're likely to have calmer breathing and a lower heart rate.

What Is the Role of the Vagus Nerve in the Body?

The vagus nerve, as a parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, is key to orchestrating safety in your body. Healthy vagus nerve function helps to control heart rate, immune system, and digestion.

What's interesting about the vagal nerve being a part of the parasympathetic branch is that the response are involuntary. Your brain and nerves are handling the transfer of information and responses to them without you even being aware it's happening.

The vagus nerve's role as the architect of safety in your body helps to:

  • Regulate downward the response to threat
  • Restore visceral order
  • Restore psychological calm

Interestingly, once the vagus nerve is able to calm your defenses to certain situations, your body is able to enter the psychological stage needed for social interaction.

Vagus Nerve, Mind-Body Highway

The vagus nerve works to connect the physical and mental processes in the body. This is important because the mind and body are physiologically connected and one directly impacts the other.

While the vagus nerve works with the brain to communicate with many organs in the body it works on the idea for relaxing tension. It has the responsibility of:

  • Relaxing tension
  • Counteracting activity of the sympathetic nerves
  • Establishing homeostasis, sometimes referred to as rest and digest

It takes the body's reaction to stress back down and helps to usher in calm and a sense of safety. It's important for the body to be able to work its way back from stress to relaxation so it can repair, have growth, and reproduction.

Remember, the vagus nerve plays a key role in both physical and mental health and their interconnectedness. Let's take a closer look.

Vagus Nerve's Connection to Physical Health

The vagus nerve is key to physical health in your body. It controls:

  • Breathing
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Digestive functions including movement of food

Vagal tone is important here because it's that connection and balance that exists between the parasympathetic and sympathetic activities as they relate to the heart.

Vagal tone happens when the heart is able to respond appropriately and tell the heart to increase or decrease the heart rate. If your vagal tone in your body is working properly then your body can ramp the heart rate and reaction and then also settle it down after the stress.

If your body is experiencing consistent low vagal tone, you could feel those results in your digestive system with things like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other disorders of the gastrointestinal tract.

Vagus Nerve's Connection to Mental Health

With so much responsibility on the physical response, it's also surprising the vagus nerve also has a connection to mental health. In fact, in recent years, this has been the focus of much research.

The vagus nerve is part of the mood modulator which is connected to your reactions to stress. It's believed that the feelings of stress and anxiety are a reflection of the threat that the physical body is processing.

Your brain sets you up with messages from the vagal nerve for psychological distress which can perpetuate in negative thoughts, distress, and feelings.

Vagal Nerve Stimulation Treatments

Important treatments have been used in connection with stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Vagal tone can decrease with age. One study found that strong vagal tone your body is better able to regulate blood flow and blood glucose levels. When your body has a strong vagal tone, you're at reduced risk for stroke, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

On the flip side, when the body has a low vagal tone, there can be some negative physical psychological impacts. The body could be at risk for depression, anxiety, gut issues, and inflammation.

Epilepsy patients who were studied before, during, and after a grand mal seizure showed a total loss of vagal tone. There are also some epilepsy patients who aren't responsive to oral medications. Vagal nerve stimulation has been used in some of these patients to prevent seizures from epilepsy.

Similarly, depression patients who are not responding to medications have used vagal nerve stimulation as a part of a treatment protocol as a treatment for their depression. The vagus nerve, with stimulation, helps to balance the psychological needs of the patient.

Gut-Brain Axis

There's an interesting connection often referred to as the gut-brain axis or gut-brain connection. You know that the vagus nerve has a key role in what happens with the digestive system. In the wall of the upper intestinal tract there is a complex network of nerves called the enteric nervous system.

What's unique about the enteric nervous system is that it functions completely separate from the central nervous system which is the spinal cord and brain. Scientists like to call this the body's second brain because it acts independently and still communicates with the brain.

This communication from the enteric nervous system with the brain is where the vagus nerve is connected. The vagus nerve acts as a connector or bridge between the gut and the brain which allows communication coming and going between these organs.

This gut-brain connection has an impact on everything from things like weight gain, bowel movements, and nutrient recovery to things like stress, anxiety, mood, and behavior.

Hence the connection between both the physical well being of the body and the mental well being.

Supporting Vagus Nerve Function

The goal for your body would be to have healthy vagus nerve function to achieve vagal tone. This would ultimately help your body achieve a state of well being both physically and mentally.

To achieve vagus nerve stimulation, there are a number of things you can do to help your body get there. Many of these involve lifestyle choices. Let's take a closer look at some things you can do to help your vagus nerve stay stimulated and support both physical and mental health.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

Probiotics and prebiotics are key healthy gut bacteria. The healthy gut bacteria helps create signaling molecules that are used for communication in the vagus nerve and the brain. The healthy gut bacteria helps with gut inflammation.

This kind of bacteria can also create neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

Pay attention to diet to achieve this healthy gut bacteria. Eat things like sauerkraut and kimchi that hold useful bacteria. Also, work to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to gain the prebiotic fibres needed for the bacteria.

Deep Breathing

How many times in your life have you been scared, nervous, fearful, anxious, or stressed and someone has said to you why don't you take a deep breath? It seems they were onto something.

They might not have known that deep breathing actually works, has an immediate impact on the nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve. You were probably given the advice to take a deep breath because it makes you feel better and the reason is directly connected to the vagus nerve.

Start Singing or Gargling

The vagus nerve is located in the back of the throat area. When you sing, especially loudly, or gargle you stimulate the vagus nerve. You do this because you are vibrating the muscle fibres at the back of the throat area which is also where the vagus nerve is located.

Simply gargling daily or belting out your favorite song daily can help improve the vagus nerve tone and keep a balance on the physical and mental health it controls.

Use a Vagus Nerve Stimulator Device

Some people need more stimulation for the vagus nerve than those self care tips can provide. In this case, you can wear a vagus nerve stimulator device.

This device is intended to be worn for a short amount of time each day to help send mild pulses of electricity to the nerve for stimulation. You won't feel this stimulation but your nerves will. The device connects right to your ear to send the signals needed to keep the vagus nerve feeling fully stimulated.

Understanding the Vagal Tone and Its Connection to Your Mental Health

Vagal tone gets achieved in the vagus nerves when there's strong communication between the brain and the gut. This vaga tone helps to maintain both physical and mental health.

To learn more about the vagus nerve stimulator and how it can benefit you, contact us today for more information.

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