During physical or emotional stress our sympathetic or “fight, flight or freeze” nervous system is activated. The longer it stays activated, the higher the levels of stress hormones are produced (such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol). Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones cause havoc in the body. They weaken your immune system, impair digestion, cause blood sugar dysregulation and may contribute to chronic and autoimmune conditions.
But there is something we could do to improve our stress recovery. Parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system and the vagus nerve, in particular, are crucial for our stress resilience and balance. Stimulation of the vagus nerve has a calming effect and may decrease the levels of stress hormones.
The vagus nerve or “wandering nerve” is the longest nerve in our body, connecting the brain with internal organs, including heart, lungs, stomach and intestines. It influences your heart function, breathing and digestion.
The activity of your vagus nerve is measured by the “vagal tone”. The higher your “vagal tone” the quicker you can recover after the stress. The vagal tone can be measured by your heart rate, breathing rate and heart rate variability (HRV). Higher HRV means higher vagal tone, which is what we want. The athletes tend to have high HRV and vagal tone and, therefore, higher stress recovery.
There are evidence-based methods you could try to improve your vagal tone and your stress resilience:
End your morning shower with a quick cold shower. If you are not quite up for it, then washing your face in ice cold water could help calming you down too.
Singing, humming, chanting and gargling
As the vagus nerve is connected to the muscles at the back of your throat and your vocal cords, any of these activities would mechanically stimulate the vagus nerve.
Deep breathing practice
Breathing through your belly is extremely effective in stimulating your vagus nerve. The easiest breathing pattern is a “4 counts box” breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 4 counts and so on. Draw an imaginary “square box” as your inhale, hold and exhale to help with the count. The vagal stimulation happens during the exhale, so breathing has to be slow. Aim for 5-6 breaths per minute.
Consistency with the deep breathing exercise is the key. Try 5-10 min every day, but you have to practice regularly to improve your vagal tone.
Any type of massage would be beneficial for stimulating parasympathetic nervous system. Both dry skin brushing and foot massage are effective and you could do it yourself.
The diet rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids were shown to increase HRV. Try having oily fish at least 3 times per week, if you can. I like acronym SMASH for remembering oily fish types: Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herring. If you don’t eat fish, then look into high quality omega 3 supplementation, with combined DHA/EPA content over 1,000mg.
What do you think about the following little daily routine to improve your vagal tone:
When you wake up, have 5-10 min breathing practice while lying in bed, then finish your usual shower with 15-30 sec cold shower while loudly singing your favourite song. In the evening, before going to bed try 10 minutes of dry skin brushing, followed by gargling your throat with a salty water and then 5 min deep breathing practice before sleep. This sounds very feasible to me.
In good health,