Strategies to Boost Your Energy, Slash Inflammation & Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
In our fast-paced and stress-filled lives, it’s absolutely critical to find ways to heal and regenerate our energy levels DAILY.
When we don’t, we open ourselves up to serious physical harm, including inflammatory diseases, high blood pressure, a compromised immune system, autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, digestive disorders including inflammatory bowel disease, and psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and more.
The Gut-Brain Axis
Did you know you’ve got a hotline between your brain and your gut?
Back in my Grandma’s day, that meant a LIVE phone line; you didn’t need to dial to get a direct telecommunications link for immediate communication.
The gut-brain axis is kinda like that hotline. It’s always open, and it’s a two-way communication highway between your gastrointestinal tract and your brain (AKA: your central nervous system).
This bi-lateral pathway uses signaling hormones and other chemical messengers to manage what we do and how we feel on the daily.
Why is this important to know?
Well, it’s because when we’re stressed and in a regular state of fight-or-flight, not only is our brain chemistry affected, but so is our microbiome.
Here’s something wild most people don’t know.
Mental health doesn’t live in the brain.
The truth is, many neurotransmitters actually stem from your gut!
For example, around 90% of serotonin is produced by our gut bacteria. Serotonin is known as the “happy hormone” and it contributes to mood, appetite, and sleep regulation.
And nearly half of our dopamine is also produced in the gut. Dopamine is like the brain’s reward messenger, delivering you feelings of pleasure and motivation. This neurotransmitter plays a key role in shaping your desires, learning from experiences, and encouraging you to keep seeking out things that make you feel good. When you’re low in dopamine or serotonin, you’re often low in energy too.
So it’s clear that when your gut is unhealthy or imbalanced, chances are you’re also experiencing mood and energy imbalances.
But, there’s great news ahead.
Built inside each of us lies a remarkable tool that aids in our natural restoration process: the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” nervous system.
What Is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
Imagine that your body is a finely tuned orchestra, with two conductors leading different sections.
The sympathetic nervous system is the conductor of the intense and dramatic pieces, stirring excitement and action. When you face a threat or a challenge, this conductor signals your heart to race, your muscles to tense, and your senses to sharpen – priming you for action. You may know this as the “fight or flight” response. It’s your body’s way of getting ready to battle or run like the wind.
When you’re chronically stressed or overwhelmed, your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. It releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as fuel to go into combat mode – which is great when you’re in a ‘fight to the death’ situation, but not great when they flood your body constantly. These hormones aren’t meant to be released all the time. They’re meant for short spurts to get you out of danger. So when you’re in chronic “fight or flight” mode, you’re actually increasing inflammation inside you, which not only leaves you exhausted and unmotivated, but actually leads to serious and chronic diseases.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is the conductor of the soothing and harmonious melodies. When the intense piece ends, this conductor takes over to restore calmness and balance. When activated, it slows your heart rate, turns on digestion, and promotes relaxation, recovery, and energy conservation. Imagine it as the body’s natural healing mode, allowing you to rest and rejuvenate.
These two conductors work together in a delicate dance, ensuring that your body responds appropriately to different situations. When the sympathetic system activates, the parasympathetic system steps in afterward to bring things back to normal.
While the sympathetic nervous system is meant for short stints, the parasympathetic response is intended to be your default state. The longer you can be in this “rest and digest” state, the healthier you will be—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
What the Parasympathetic Response Does Inside the Human Body
Let’s get deeper into what actually happens when you slip into the parasympathetic response.
Slows Heart Rate: Your parasympathetic response reduces heart rate and promotes a sense of calm, which is critical to your overall cardiovascular health. A slower heart rate often indicates that your heart is functioning efficiently. It doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood, which reduces the wear and tear on the heart muscle. This can lower the risk of heart-related issues such as heart disease, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular problems. It also gives you a higher capacity to fight off the stress-related effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric disorders.
Creates a Happy Microbiome: The parasympathetic nervous system promotes increased blood flow to your gastrointestinal organs. Adequate blood supply is crucial for maintaining a healthy gut environment, as it ensures that nutrients and oxygen reach the cells lining the intestines and supports the growth of beneficial bacteria. Because your microbiome serves as the engine for your body, it’s crucial to maintain a happy, healthy environment inside your digestive system.
Stimulates Digestion: This response aids in optimal digestion by increasing intestinal activity and promoting nutrient absorption. That means people with, or at risk to develop, gastrointestinal tract diseases (like irritable bowel syndrome), can control the onset of an attack.
Promotes Restful Sleep: When the parasympathetic system is active, it helps induce and maintain restful sleep, leading to significant improvements in overall sleep quality. That means your body has a higher resistance to daily stress response reflexes that can lead to diseases like high blood pressure.
Enhances Immune Function: The parasympathetic response supports the immune system, facilitating the body’s ability to fight off illnesses and infections.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is a key player in the gut-brain axis.
Often hailed as the “wandering nerve,” it’s the longest cranial nerve in the body – extending from the brainstem to the majority of our internal organs (including the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It serves as the primary channel the gut and brain communicate through.
Because it’s a main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, having a healthy vagus nerve is critical. There are actually many ways you can consciously activate the vagus nerve for healing.
How to Do Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) for Healing
Stimulating the vagus nerve to enhance the parasympathetic response allows you to promote healing throughout the body. In fact, it’s actually been shown to be effective for mental health conditions, such as treatment-resistant depression, among other conditions.
Here are some simple vagus nerve stimulation techniques you can try today:
During times of stress, our breathing becomes shallow, and we often use our shoulders to move air in and out of the lungs rather than the diaphragm. This type of breathing pattern can actually prolong feelings of stress. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve to initiate a relaxation response.
To practice deep breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your ribcage. Breathe in slowly and deeply for a count of 4-5 seconds through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise. Your chest should remain relatively still. Imagine your breath reaching all the way down to your belly, stimulating the vagus nerve. Exhale slowly and gently and slowly your mouth or nose for a count of 6-7 seconds. As you exhale, focus on emptying your lungs fully while allowing your abdomen to fall. After exhaling completely, pause for a moment before your next inhalation. Continue this deep breathing pattern for several breath cycles. You can start with 5 minutes and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable.
Singing and Chanting
The vagal nerve passes through the inner ear and vocal cords, so an easy way to activate it is through vocal activities.
Singing, chanting, or humming engages the muscles in the throat, neck, and lungs, which stimulates the vagus nerve to promote relaxation.
Gargling works to stimulate the vagus nerve through the activation of specific muscles in the throat and the back of the mouth. When you gargle vigorously with water, you contract and relax the muscles involved in the process. This action can create a domino effect of neural signals that travel along the vagus nerve pathways.
Neck and Face Massage
The vagus nerve runs through your neck and face, making these areas particularly well-suited for vagus nerve stimulation through massage. For a VNS-style massage, start by gently massaging the sides of your neck using your fingertips or the pads of your fingers. Use circular motions and apply gentle pressure. Gradually move your fingers upward from the base of your neck toward your jawline, use your fingers to massage your jawline in a circular motion. Focus on the area right below your ears and along your lower jaw. You can also gently massage the area where your neck meets your skull, just behind your ears.
Then, move on to your face. Massage your cheeks and temples using gentle, upward strokes. Gently press your fingers against your forehead and move them outward in a sweeping motion.
Next, move on to your ears. Gently massage your earlobes between your thumb and index finger. You can also use circular motions to massage the entire outer ear.
You can perform this massage for a few minutes to start and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable. It’s beneficial to incorporate this massage into your daily or weekly routine to experience the cumulative benefits of vagus nerve stimulation.
Research indicates that exposing your body to cold temperatures can actually activate your parasympathetic nervous system. When you experience cold, the blood vessels on the outer parts of your body narrow, which makes your core work harder to stay warm. This causes an increase in pressure at the center of your body, prompting a shift out of the “fight or flight” mode into the “rest and digest” mode.
Simple ways you activate the vagus nerve via cold exposure include slipping into an unheated pool, taking a cold shower, doing a professional cryotherapy session (studios are popping up everywhere!), or even just splashing your face with cold water.
The vagus nerve uses a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which plays a big role in calming down inflammation, as well as improving memory and focus. Choline is an amino acid that serves as the precursor to acetylcholine. It’s involved in important things like controlling muscles, memory, and even how we feel.
To support healthy vagus nerve function, ensuring you get enough choline is vital. You can get choline through animal-based foods, such as egg yolks, liver, salmon, cod, shrimp, and scallops, but also through plant-based sources, including tofu, soymilk, broccoli, cooked beans, quinoa, peanuts, and mushrooms. Or, you can go the supplement route.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a dietary pattern where you alternate between periods of eating and fasting. It’s been shown to help repair your mitochondria, which are the energy-centers of your cells.
There are many popular IF patterns. For example, the “16/8 plan” is super common. It’s where you have a 16-hour window of fasting (including your overnight sleeping hours) and an 8-hour window where you can eat. When you have an empty stomach, your body is able to clean out the systems more effectively – similar to how you’re able to clean your house better when no one is home.
As you now know, one of the functions of the vagus nerve is to allow your body to “rest and digest”, which means you need to actually give your gut time to digest. So through fasting, your body has more time to complete this digestion and cleaning process in order to improve your ability to regenerate energy, restore your microbiome, and release inflammation, stress, and toxins.
Probiotics and Gut Health
Because the microbiome plays a massive role in the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, keeping a healthy, balanced environment inside the digestive tract is critical. Consuming probiotic-rich foods or supplements (for example, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus rhamnosus ) can positively influence the gut microbiome, which in turn can affect vagal nerve tone.
Some essential oils have been linked to help activate your vagus nerve when heart rate variability has been measured to show improvement. When you inhale essential oils, they travel to your brain and help to calm you immediately. Also, when applied topically, essential oils cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate your vagus nerve. My favorite parasympathetic blend is made by Vibrant Blue Oils and simply called ‘Parasympathetic’.
How to Know What Your Body Needs
If you haven’t realized this yet, having consistent self-care practices are key to keeping inflammation down, restoring the body naturally, and regenerating more energy daily.
Understanding the parasympathetic response and the vagus nerve’s vital role in healing and restoring energy levels empowers us to take charge of our well-being.
Incorporating these practices into our daily lives can lead to a more vibrant existence, enhancing our overall health and vitality.
Working with a functional medicine practitioner is the quickest way to identify what’s causing your imbalances.
When we work together, we’ll create a custom plan to address the real root issues, like digestive struggles, fatigue, autoimmune conditions, and mood disorders that have been slowing you down. We’ll also co-create a fully customized blueprint you can actually follow to help you restore your health – and finally have your energy keep up with your ambition.
Together, we can make a real difference in your overall health and start feeling better than ever before.
Ready to say goodbye to Dr. Google? Let’s see if we’re a good match.
Take Good Care,