Polyvagal & The Vagus Nerve
In this blog post we learn about the origins of the word “Polyvagal” and understand more about the Vagus nerve. We also learn what Vagal Toning is and how to achieve “good vagal tone”.
The word “polyvagal” comes from the combination of two Greek words: “poly,” which means “many,” and “vagus,” which refers to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs from the brainstem down through the neck and chest, and into the abdomen. It is an important part of the body’s nervous system and has many functions.
The word “vagus” comes from the Latin word “vagus,” which means “wandering.” The vagus nerve is so called because it wanders through many different parts of the body.
The term “polyvagal” was coined by Stephen Porges, a researcher who developed the polyvagal theory of emotion and behavior. According to this theory, the body’s nervous system has different branches that regulate our emotional and behavioral responses to different situations.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
Anatomy of the vagus nerve: The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves (which are the nerves that originate in the brain). It has many branches that reach down into the abdomen and innervate (supply nerve fibers to) various organs and tissues. The vagus nerve is composed of both sensory and motor fibers, which carry signals to and from the brain.
Functions of the vagus nerve: The vagus nerve has many important functions in the body. One of its main functions is to regulate the body’s “rest and digest” response, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response. When the body is in a state of “rest and digest,” the heart rate slows down and the body becomes more relaxed. This is important for maintaining overall health and well-being.
The vagus nerve also plays a role in controlling the muscles of the digestive system, as well as the muscles of the voice box (larynx) and the pharynx (throat). It also carries sensory information from the body’s organs back to the brain, which helps the brain to monitor and regulate various bodily functions.
Role of the vagus nerve in the brain-gut axis: The vagus nerve plays a key role in the brain-gut axis, which is the communication network between the brain and the gut. The vagus nerve carries signals between the brain and the gut, helping to regulate the digestive process and other bodily functions.
Role of the vagus nerve in mental health: The vagus nerve has also been found to play a role in mental health. Studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can have a positive effect on mood and anxiety, and that people with depression or anxiety often have reduced vagal tone (a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve).
Vagus nerve stimulation: In some cases, doctors may recommend vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) as a treatment for certain conditions, such as epilepsy or depression. VNS involves the use of a device that sends mild electrical impulses to the vagus nerve, which can help to improve symptoms. While VNS is generally considered safe, it is not appropriate for everyone, and it should only be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
The vagus nerve is an important part of the body’s nervous system, and it plays a key role in maintaining the body’s overall balance and well-being.
What is Vagal Tone?
Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Good vagal tone, or high vagal tone, refers to increased activity of the vagus nerve and is associated with a range of benefits for physical and mental health.
According to Dr. Stephen Porges, good vagal tone is important because it helps to regulate the body’s stress response and promote feelings of calm and safety. High vagal tone is associated with a greater ability to recover from stress and better overall health and well-being. In contrast, low vagal tone is associated with an increased risk of stress-related health problems, such as heart disease and mental health disorders.
Dr. Porges’ polyvagal theory suggests that good vagal tone is important for social communication and connection, as well as for regulating the body’s physiological responses to stress. The theory posits that the vagus nerve plays a central role in regulating the body’s stress response and social behavior, and that good vagal tone is essential for optimal health and well-being.
The potential benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve include:
Reducing inflammation: Activating the vagus nerve has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, which may help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
Improving mood and reducing anxiety: The vagus nerve plays a role in regulating the body’s stress response, and stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to have a positive effect on mood and anxiety.
Promoting relaxation and reducing stress: Stimulating the vagus nerve can help to promote feelings of relaxation and reduce stress.
Improving sleep: The vagus nerve is involved in regulating sleep, and stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to improve sleep quality.
Reducing chronic pain: Stimulating the vagus nerve may help to reduce chronic pain, particularly in conditions such as fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.
Enhancing cognitive function: Some studies have suggested that stimulating the vagus nerve may improve cognitive function and memory.
It’s important to note that while stimulating the vagus nerve may have these potential benefits, more research is needed to fully understand the effects and potential risks of vagus nerve stimulation.
How can we achieve good vagal tone?
There are several ways in which you can work to improve your vagal tone and stimulate the vagus nerve. :
Practice mindfulness and deep breathing exercises: Breathework can help to activate the vagus nerve and promote feelings of relaxation and calm.
Engage in physical activity: Regular exercise has been shown to improve vagal tone and overall health.
Get plenty of sleep: Adequate sleep is important for maintaining good vagal tone and overall health.
Eat a healthy diet: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other nutrients can support good vagal tone and overall health.
Seek out social connections: Social connections and supportive relationships have been shown to have a positive impact on vagal tone and overall health.
Consider trying yoga, qigong, taichi or other relaxation techniques: These practices have been shown to help improve vagal tone and promote feelings of calm and relaxation.
Gargling in particular, has been shown to have a number of benefits for the vagus nerve and the nervous system. Gargling activates the muscles in the throat and neck, which can stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone. In addition, gargling has been shown to have a number of other health benefits, including reducing the risk of respiratory infections and improving oral hygiene.
Singing, humming, and chanting can all help to activate the vagus nerve and promote feelings of relaxation and well-being. These activities may also help to reduce stress and improve mood, which can have a positive impact on vagal tone.
It’s also important to note that everyone’s vagal tone may be different, and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for improving vagal tone. Some people may find that certain practices work better for them than others, so it may be helpful to experiment and find what works best for you.
It is advisable you consult your GP or a medical professional if you suffer from health conditions prior to trying to achieve good vagal tone or partake in exercise or new wellness regimes.