Polyvagal Theory & Natural Medicine
Updated: Mar 15
For my clients with chronic illness, PTSD, mood issues, fatigue and more, we focus on vagus-strengthening exercises as part of their plan. Here's a quick review of what we normally talk about when it comes to the vagus and healing.
Your vagus nerve (or cranial nerve 10) controls most of your parasympathetic nervous system activity. You can strengthen / weaken it depending on your lifestyle, stressors, diet and more.
The vagus nerve matters in healing because it allows your to stay in rest-and-digest mode. It also helps you to keep a wide "window of tolerance" so that every day stressors don't tax your physiology or send you into fight or flight. This allows you to optimize digestion and reduce nervous system stress and be more in control of your gastrointestinal health, overall health, and mood long-term.
We can assess the strength of the vagus nerve by measuring heart rate variability, which we often do during our biofeedback sessions in the office or by using HRV monitors at home. If you want to strengthen your vagus nerve or improve your HRV, here are some of the most effective ways to do it.
How to Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve
Download the Breathly app (Android) or Breathe Plus app (Iphone). Choose the box breathing option or set the breath timer to 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. Do this 5 minutes per day, ideally working up to 20 minutes twice per day. Do this right before bed to help you slip into deep sleep more effectively.
Paced breathing works to strengthen the vagus nerve because the vagus nerve links breath and heart rate. Your heart rate is supposed to rise and fall with your breath, increasing with each breath in and decreasing with each breath out. This mechanism is controlled in part by the vagus nerve and its connections to the brain, lungs and cardiovascular system. When we practice paced breathing, we strengthen the connection between the vagus nerve and the organs / systems mentioned above. Here’s where the cool part comes in.
Tips for breathing: allow air to naturally fill your lungs back up. Don't completely empty or fill your lungs each time you breathe. Paced breathing is about timing your breath, not the amount of oxygen you breathe in and out. If you feel dizzy while you do paced breathing, you are probably over breathing. Take a break and allow yourself to breathe naturally, then return to the exercise with less intensity.
Over time, this practice will increase your HRV.
Cold Water Splash
Submerging your face in cold water activates the mammalian dive reflex, which lowers heart rate via its action on the vagus nerve. Do this once or twice each day after you wash your face. Ideally, take a deep breath and cover your face in cold water for 3-5 seconds if possible.
Sing or Hum Loudly
For at least 2 minutes to at least one whole song a day. Singing activates the vagus nerve. You can sing in your car if it helps you feel a little more free to belt it out :)
Squeeze your abs and push! Bearing down increases intra-abdominal pressure and increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Do lots of core exercises including heavy lifting as long as you've been cleared by your doctor and have been trained how to lift.
If you want to learn more about the vagus nerve and how to use it in your healing / recovery plan,
call 610-344-9600 to schedule Discovery Call or book your initial visit online today.