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What is Vagal Tone?

Vagal Tone refers to the activity of the Vagus Nerve, and a baseline of parasympathetic action that’s present in an individual.  Increased Vagal Tone is associated with overall health, including lower inflammation and healthier digestive functioning.

The Vagus Nerve

Also called “The Wandering Nerve”, the Vagus Nerve runs from the brainstem down through the throat, and throughout the organs and digestive system. The vagus nerve In a study published on PubMed, a strong correlation was found between vagal tone and overall inflammation/ pain levels, as well as healthy digestive functioning.  Further studies show that benefits of healthy vagal tone include regulating blood sugar levels and reduced likelihood of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How Do We Increase Vagal tone?

When I work with my clients, one of the first priorities is bringing a greater baseline of healthy, parasympathetic functioning online. As a result of stress and trauma, the nervous system can become dysregulated and fixated in unhealthy states.  Encouraging the body into a healthy “ventral vagal” state of functioning helps to regulate the nervous system –  increasing vagal tone, and bringing all the subsequent benefits. Bringing that ventral vagal state more online also gives us a solid foundation in the body, so we can gently release “stuck” places in the nervous system that have been storing stress and trauma.

Working With Your Own Vagus Nerve and Increasing Vagal Tone

Below are some practices you can start using today to begin bringing greater regulation to your own nervous system. Keep in mind these practices are meant to be cumulative and holistic.  There is no one-size-fits-all process, no secret “hack” that will change your nervous system. But there are predictable, observable ways to bring greater regulation into your nervous system- resulting in a greater ability to manage stress, bounce back from challenges, and experience more wellness, vitality, and ease in all areas of your life.
  • Grounding.  Grounding is a simple exercise you can do anytime to help bring a bit of calm and settling to your nervous system.   To start, bring your attention to the surface that you’re currently sitting on.  Notice the contact your body makes with the surface.  Take several moments to explore that contact – noticing everywhere that you are contacting the chair (or whatever you’re sitting on).    As you do this, gently be aware of your breath without managing or directing it in any way.  Now, become aware of gravity.  Where do you most feel the effects of gravity right now?  Take a few moments to notice the effect of gravity on your body, and gently notice your breath.  To explore this practice, you can download my free recording here.
  • Orienting.  Orienting involves using your senses to connect with your environment.  In particular, allowing your eyes to truly see the space you’re in allows your nervous system to settle and feel safer.  So often, we rush through our days without actually taking in what’s in our surroundings.  When we pause and give our systems some space to really take this in, there is a shift that happens in the primitive parts of the brain… our systems are able to literally see “I’m safe… there’s no danger here”.   In addition, very slow movements of the head and neck gently stimulate the 11th cranial nerve, inviting the system into an awake and present yet relaxed state.   (One important thing to be aware of is that for some people, orienting can be activating, rather than calming.  Nervous system work is all about awareness of your own system – not simply following a rule book).  Explore with these practices, and get to know how your unique nervous system works!   You can download my free recording for orienting here.
  • Practices such as yoga and diaphragmatic breathing can increase vagus nerve function and vagal tone.  Perhaps you’ve experienced a deeply relaxed, yet present feeling after a yoga class.  This is what your “ventral vagal” state feels like… easy, restful, yet awake and alert.
  • Humming, singing, chanting, and the “VOO.”  Due to the vagus nerve’s innervation of the larynx, one way to affect the vagus nerve is through sound.  If you’ve experienced a deeper sense of presence and relaxation following singing or chanting, you’re experiencing a bit more of that ventral vagal state.  There’s also a practice we use when working with the nervous system, called the “Voo.”  To do this practice, you’ll simply make a sound like “Vooooo”.  Think of a foghorn….  low, deep, resonant.  See if you can feel the resonance in your belly as you make this sound.  Do several rounds of this low, deep “Voo” sound, allowing natural, easy, deep full breaths in between.  After you finish, pause for a moment and see what you notice.
  • A healthy gut.  The parasympathetic nervous system contains a high level of afferent nerves, meaning nerves that carry information to the brain (instead of simply from the brain to the body).   This means that the vagus nerve, which runs through the digestive system and all the organs, carries info from the gut to the brain.  A healthy gut creates a healthy feedback loop that sends positive signals to your brain.
  • Healthy relationships.  Our relationships are one of the primary ways that our nervous systems move into that ventral vagal state.  The ventral vagal state is the state of social engagement – when we’re interacting with other safe-feeling mammals (whether human or four-legged), our nervous systems naturally move into more healthy, easy parasympathetic functioning.  So, lean into your supportive relationships- they’re actually regulating your nervous system!
If you’re interested in working directly with your nervous system to increase your resilience, release stored stress and trauma from the body, and move into your next level of health and wellness, you can find out more about working with me here. And, enjoy getting to know your nervous system, and bringing more vagal tone on board…. your body and mind will benefit!

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