Vagal Tone: Meet Your 10th Cranial Nerve

Vagal Tone: Meet Your 10th Cranial Nerve

Your 10th cranial nerve starts at the base of your brain and then travels down to your heart and through your lungs and down into your gut. It kind of wanders. Which is why it’s called the vagus nerve–which, in Latin, literally means “wanderer.” (It shares a root with words like vagabond.)

Why are we talking about your vagal tone? Because it plays a REALLY important role in regulating our parasympathetic nervous system.

We have a parasympathetic nervous system and a sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system takes care of the “rest and digest” side of things while the sympathetic nervous system is there for “fight or flight” stuff. In short, the relaxation response versus the stress response.

We obviously need both. But, modern life has thrown us into a near-constant arousal state with our sympathetic nervous system working overtime which leads to stress and dysfunction and burnout we don’t want.

So, in light of this tendency to stray into a state of stress all day every day, it’s more important than ever to know how to flip the switch and drop into a state of relaxation. Which, after a little wandering brings us back to our vagus nerve. Did you know you can actually measure the health of someone’s vagus nerve via something called “vagal tone”?

The healthiest among us have a six-pack-like vagal tone as measured by heart variability. Why do we want an optimized vagal tone? Because it’s basically a sign of being able to flip the switch and shift from stress to relaxation at will.

 

Do you know the fastest way to flip the switch and take a trip to Vagus? Take a deep breath. A nice, calm, deep, quiet breath through your nose down into your diaphragm followed by a gentle pause then an exhale that’s slightly longer than your inhale is magic. Repeat, and repeat one more time. You just flipped the switch.

 

That deep, calm, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing sends signals up to your vagus nerve back to your brain stem saying, “We’re good, no need to stress. Repair, rebuild, all systems relax.” And THAT is how you get your vagal tone optimized to create calm, focused energy. It’s also how you deepen your capacity to love (and everything else you want).

 

Here’s how Barbara Fredrickson puts it in her book Love 2.0: “That’s because people with higher vagal tone, science has shown, are more flexible across a whole host of domains–physical, mental, and social. They simply adapt better to their ever-shifting circumstances, albeit completely at nonconscious levels. Physically, they regulate their internal bodily processes more efficiently, like their glucose levels and inflammation. Mentally they’re better able to regulate their attention and emotions, even their behavior. Socially, they’re especially skillful in navigating interpersonal interactions and in forging positive connections with others. By definition, then, they experience more micro-moments of love. It’s as though the agility of the conduit between the brains and the heart–as reflected in their high vagal tone–allows them to be exquisitely agile, attuned, and flexible as they navigate the ups and downs of day-to-day life and social exchanges. High vagal tone, then, can be taken as high loving potential.”

 

How about a nice, calm, deep breath?

 

 

 

Coach At Plaza Fitness Performance

Zack Feeney

thoracic mobility

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