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Polyvagal Theory

A few months ago I read a book that blew my mind: The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges. This book offers a totally new theory about how our bodies respond to stress, and it inspired a deep dive into a research rabbit hole so I could learn how to bring my vagus nerve back online and get my chronic stress under control.

Here’s what I learned:

The human nervous system has cranial nerves and spinal nerves. Cranial nerves emerge directly from the brain and pass through openings in the skull (cranium), and spinal nerves branch off the spinal cord and pass through spaces between our vertebrae. Eleven of the twelve cranial nerves serve their purpose in the head, neck and face - nerves that connect to our eyes, ears, tongue, etc. The vagus nerve is different.

Stretching from the brain to the colon, the vagus is the longest cranial nerve in the human body. Named for its meandering path (“vagus” means “wandering” in Latin), the vagus nerve emerges from the brain stem and connects to almost all of our major organs, travelling from the larynx, heart & lungs, down to our entire digestive tract.

This nerve plays a central role in our well-being, from our emotional state & how we interpret social cues, to our physical state and our ability to digest and absorb nutrients. It also affects our stress response, intuition & perception, endocrine function, heart rate & breathing.

Here’s how it works:

The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system.

Our autonomic nervous system is the network of neural tissue that controls our involuntary body functions - these are the processes that our bodies run without our conscious control, like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. The autonomic nervous system or ANS is traditionally divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. These two sets of nerves act in opposition to each other: the sympathetic is our “fight or flight” system, and the parasympathetic is the “rest and digest” system. The parasympathetic nervous system is ruled by the vagus nerve, which acts like a brake on the sympathetic system.

The way it’s supposed to work is short-term: we detect a threat, our bodies react by releasing “fight or flight” neurochemicals, we escape or overcome the threat, and our vagus nerve activates to calm us down. In terms of evolution, this mechanism is valuable in that it enabled us to run away from predators and ensured the survival of our species. Ideally, we would be spending most of our time in a parasympathetic state, resting and digesting, calmly walking through life, and only relying on the sympathetic “fight or flight” response when there is an actual life-or-death threat present.

However, many of us find ourselves in a prolonged stress-response state that over time, dampens the vagus nerve’s ability to bring us back into that calm, “rest and digest” state.

The stress and anxieties of modern western life - from our workplace cultures and family responsibilities, to the ongoing uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic - create a background frequency that can feel very unsafe. When our bodies feel unsafe, we go into "survival mode."

When we’re in “survival mode,” our bodies are releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to mobilize defensive behaviors.

In small doses these stress hormones are necessary and actually beneficial, and they give us the juice to meet a challenge. But when we’re in a constant state of biological hypervigilance, these hormones can create all kinds of problems, and the vagus nerve has to work harder to keep up.

The vagus nerve is the mind-body connection.

Western philosophy emphasizes the separation of mind and body - the mind is “in charge” and the body follows. “Mind over matter,” right? We are taught to think things through and override what our body wants, and to exert willpower over our bodily desires. In this model, the brain is like a military general, giving orders to the body, and the body is supposed to say “sir yes sir” and obey.

Eastern philosophies, like yoga and Taosim, see the mind and body as parts of a coherent whole, interconnected and interdependent, influencing and affecting each other’s well-being. The vagus nerve connects the brain to almost all of the major organs of the body, and what’s most interesting to me about the vagus nerve is that 80% or more of the information it carries is from the body up to the brain, and not the other way around. This is the brain-gut axis: a superhighway of biofeedback - telling the brain what’s going on in the body. The vagus nerve mediates thinking and feeling through the mind-body connection.

The vagus nerve relates to the Kundalini serpent.

In Sanskrit, kundalini means “coiled snake,” and is thought to be a form of divine feminine energy located at the base of the spine, correlating to the root chakra. In the Hindu tradition, when we awaken the kundalini energy, it flows in a serpentine path from the root chakra, curving up through the gut, heart, and up to the head. The vagus nerve firing upward electrochemical messages to the brain and the kundalini serpent carrying life force energy up through our chakras can be seen as two different explanations for the exact same phenomenon!

The vagus nerve wraps around our hearts.

The vagus regulates our heart rate and blood pressure, and it’s intimately involved in our emotional health. Emotional processing happens between the brain, heart, and gut. This is where we have gut reactions to intense emotional and mental states. The vagus nerve also controls our “social engagement system” which, among other things, allows us to actively listen, maintain meaningful eye contact, develop compassion and empathy, and connect with others on a soul level. This is where we are literally “wired for connection.” Our heart rate goes down when we see a friendly face or hear a kind voice - this is a critical part of the social engagement system.

The vagus nerve is your “gut feeling.”

The vagus nerve uses electrical impulses to facilitate communication between the brain and the gut. Butterflies in the stomach, stress-induced ulcers, emotional eating - these are all examples of the brain-gut connection. The network of nerve cells lining our digestive tract is so extensive that it’s earned the nickname “the second brain.” This mass of neural tissue in our gut produces over 30 different neurotransmitters, including 95% of our body’s supply of serotonin, a key hormone that affects mood, sleep, and digestion.

How healthy is your vagus nerve?

When our vagus nerve is functioning optimally, our bodies are able to quickly recover from stress, repair oxidative damage, digest and assimilate nutrients, sleep well and regenerate. Poor vagal function can manifest as mental, emotional, or physical symptoms:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Hypervigilance

  • Aggression

  • Adrenal fatigue

  • Digestive disorders

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Inflammation

  • Thyroid imbalance

  • Hormonal imbalance

  • Autoimmune disorders

  • Food sensitivities

  • Metabolic changes & weight gain

  • And more

Supporting healthy vagal function is key in promoting overall health. Luckily, there are many techniques we can do on our own to bring our vagus nerve back into a healthy state.

Here are 5 easy ways to engage your vagus and improve your overall well-being:

Breathwork - deep, slow breathing activates highly sensitive pressure receptors in the heart and neck called baroreceptors, which send signals to the brain telling it to activate the vagus nerve. My go-to technique is simple: I inhale slowly through my nose, filling my lungs from bottom to top until I can’t take in any more, then exhale through pursed lips, like I’m slowly blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. The key is to engage the diaphragm and abdomen on both the inhale and exhale - I imagine my diaphragm moving down on the inhale, making space for my lungs to expand, and then engage my abs as I push the air out from the bottom up.

Gargling, singing, chanting - the vagus nerve connects to the vocal cords and the muscles at the back of the throat. Gargling, singing and chanting can activate these muscles, stimulating the vagus nerve and improving heart rate variability and vagal tone. Bonus - when you engage in any of these activities, you’re also doing breathwork!

Laughter - laughter not only combines the vagal toning benefits of diaphragmatic breathing and vocalization, but also has been linked to boosting immune system function. When we laugh, our bodies increase production of infection-fighting T-cells and release endorphins, our body’s natural pain-killers.

Cold exposure - cold showers and cold plunges activate the vagus nerve, which in turn slows our breathing and lowers blood pressure. Even splashing cold water on your face or placing an ice pack on your chest can have vagal toning benefits.

Sunlight - getting out in the sunlight can chemically improve your mood. UVA rays stimulate the production of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), which stimulates the vagus nerve. Sunlight also stimulates vitamin D production in our skin, enabling us to absorb calcium from the small intestine.

Making friends with your vagus nerve can have a major impact on your day to day life - from helping you negotiate stressful situations to boosting your immune system - and give you additional skills for your self-care toolkit. Try adding one or more of these techniques to your daily routine and see if you start to feel more grounded and less stressed.

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