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NIFS Healthy Living Blog

What Happens in Vagus: Jump-start Recovery by Increasing Vagal Tone

GettyImages-1182821901Raise your hand if you’ve been here before: You get to the end of a great workout. You’re spent, fatigued, but in a good way. In a way that you know you’ve put in some quality work. But you look down at your watch and realize you’ve run a bit over your time. So you grab your things and rush out of the gym. You don’t have time for a cool-down, right? You’ve got to get to the car and rush to the next thing on the docket.

Without realizing it, you’ve kept up that same stimulus from your workout: that amped-up, fight-or-flight response. Only now it’s been hours since its conclusion. In short, your body has never left that stress response behind. Instead, it’s been carried around perhaps all day, and your body has not had time to transition into a rest, digest, and recovery mode. In other words, you’ve never shifted from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest, recovery). This may sound like a “so what?” problem. But if left unchecked, this can not only stall out your workouts, but can also eventually lead to chronic issues with inflammation, sleep problems, or altered hormonal responses.

Appropriately managing your stress response isn’t something that only applies to workouts. We all face stressors on a daily, weekly, or hourly basis (perhaps in today’s world now more than ever!). If it starts to get out of hand, numerous aspects of our health and well-being are affected. Learning to mitigate and manage chronic stress can have positive effects on both physical and mental health. One way to do this is to address your vagal tone.

What Is Vagal Tone?

The longest nerve in the human body is the vagus nerve. It innervates numerous organs such as the intestines, stomach, heart, liver, and lungs (fun fact: “vagus” translates to “wanderer” in Latin; because it wanders around the body). The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and vagal tone refers to the activity of this nerve. If it is impaired, low vagal tone results, which is a contributor to stress and increased anxiety, a pro-inflammatory response, and a disruptor of normal gut functioning.

What Are the Benefits of Increased Vagal Tone?

A high vagal tone is associated with lower blood pressure, improved blood-sugar regulation, improved digestion, better mood, reduced anxiety, and reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps one of the largest benefits of a higher vagal tone is the ability to relax faster after stress. So whether you’re talking physical stress from a workout or mental stress from everyday life, having an increased vagal tone can help you navigate the stressors of everyday life and be better prepared for the next one!

Additionally, researchers have discovered a positive feedback loop involving increased vagal tone, positive emotion responses, and physical and mental well-being. In short, the vagal response, or parasympathetic drive, actually works to mitigate stress and foster positive emotions. Definitely a win-win!

How Can You Increase Vagal Tone?

Okay great, now how the heck can I start working to stimulate the vagus nerve? Here are a few quick hitters that you can do today to improve your vagal tone.

Deep or Diaphragmatic Breathing

If you have virtually no time to cool down after a workout, a few deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths can help quickly shift you toward more of a parasympathetic state. Lying on your back, elevating your legs so that your knees are at 90 degrees (on a box or bench), and taking 10–20 slow, deep breaths helps to gradually lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure, all while stimulating the vagus nerve. Try having one hand on your upper chest and one hand over your belly button, and as you inhale try to see if your lower hand (belly) is moving upward. If you notice that only your upper hand is moving upon inhaling, take a few reps to practice filling your belly with air. This is a skill just like any other; it takes a bit of practice. But if you’re short on time, this technique is a bit of a cheat code. You can even try it before bed to help relax!

Singing, Humming, or Gargling

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the branches of the vagus nerve, the superior laryngeal nerve, actually innervates the vocal cords. As a result, we can mechanically stimulate it by singing, humming, gargling, chanting, etc. So belt out those tunes for car karaoke, hum that song that’s stuck in your head at work, and increase that vagal tone in the process!

Cold Exposure

For all us Midwesterners, we should have this one covered for about 7–8 months of the year! In all seriousness, gradually increasing your exposure to cold, and eventually becoming more habituated, causes a shift to greater parasympathetic activity. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and run two miles barefoot in the snow. You can start by splashing cold water (and I mean cold) on your face 10–20 times. Or going out to get the mail in December in a t-shirt and shorts. Or finishing off your shower with a quick 10-second blast of cold. Overall, try small interventions first to get the ball rolling. And if you’re looking for a laugh, check out my previous blog, when I put myself through hot-cold contrast showers for a week!

Omega-3s

The body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids naturally, so they must come from the diet. They are found readily in fish (especially cold-water fish like wild-caught salmon), extra virgin olive oil, avocados, walnuts, and flaxseed, among other foods. Their benefits are wide-ranging: they positively affect brain and mental health, mitigate inflammation, and aid in improving cardiovascular health. Studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids also increase heart rate variability (a good thing!) and stimulate vagal activity.

Social Interaction

We are social creatures. As humans, we are hardwired to find and belong to a community. So it should come as no surprise that social connection, laughter, and having a stable support system improves our mental and physical health. While this may have been more difficult or a bit unorthodox with COVID-19, its importance has never been greater. Research has shown that laughter increases heart rate variability, and that even reminiscing about positive social connections and prior engagements improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. So even if you can’t physically be near those you love and appreciate, making that effort to continue to reach out and connect goes a long way in your recovery from stress.

Jump-Start Your Recovery

We all face stressors on a daily basis. Whether it’s the low-level background noise of the news, or a large deadline looming in the future, learning to navigate and respond appropriately to stress is a must for maintaining physical and mental well-being. By increasing your vagal tone, you can help jump-start your recovery so that you’re more ready to tackle the next thing on your to-do list, be it a work project or a workout!

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This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Assistant Fitness Center Manager, Health Fitness Instructor, and Personal Trainer. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: stress workout recovery nervous system

The Hidden Wellness and Fitness Benefits of Yoga

Yoga3.jpgMany of us know that yoga serves as a form of physical activity that increases flexibility for participants. Yoga focuses on putting the individuals in body poses that elongate muscles from head to toe. While this is very true, and I encourage anyone looking to improve their flexibility to incorporate yoga into their weekly workout routine, yoga has so much more to offer than just improvements in flexibility. In fact, the original context of yoga had very little to do with improving flexibility at all.

Originally the purpose of yoga was spiritual development practices to improve mind-body awareness. Over the years, however, many have begun to focus more on the physical benefits of yoga than the mental and spiritual benefits, which has led the practice of yoga to take on newly defined purposes. However, it is important to understand the mind-body awareness benefits of yoga, as they can be just as if not more beneficial than the physical attributes. Let’s take a look at what some of those hidden benefits are.

Nervous System and Digestive System

One major focus of yoga is to become more aware of and to control your breathing patterns. By learning to control breathing, you can move from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system almost instantaneously. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, or the part of your nervous system designed to respond to stress. When the sympathetic nervous system is in control, heart rate and blood pressure rise as a response to fight a possible threat. You want to limit the activity of this side of the autonomic nervous system. This is important because when the parasympathetic nervous system (or rest and digest) is in majority of control, your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels lower while your digestion rate increases. Once your body reaches this relaxed state, anxiety becomes something of the past. A faster digestive system helps your body make the most of nutrients found in the food you consume while regulating regular bodily function.

Focus and Creativity

If you ask an experienced yogi what the hardest part of yoga is, you might be surprised by their answer. Typically, one might assume that holding the different yoga poses would be the most challenging aspect; however, there is an even bigger challenge, which includes focusing—on nothing. Meditation is another crucial component of a successful yoga session. Experienced yogis are able to focus their attention on nothing but their inner self; all outside distractions are eliminated, at least temporarily. This may sound very simple, but if you have ever tried to completely clear your mind of all inner thoughts besides what you are feeling at that exact moment, you may be able to grasp how difficult a task this is to successfully complete.

However, once one is able to control their center of attention, they will find their ability to stay focused on one particular task (especially those that require attention to detail) becomes better and better. In a 2012 study published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers were able to determine those who practiced meditation for at least 10 minutes a day for up to 16 weeks performed better with divergent-thinking tasks than those who did not participate in meditation at all.

Strength and Muscle Definition

Just in case you are not fascinated by the mind-body awareness benefits of yoga, there is a less discussed muscle defining and strengthening benefit as well, for those who are solemnly interested in the physical benefits. Who knew that yoga is actually great for improving muscle definition, and in rare cases even muscle hypertrophy? Because yoga focuses on moving and upholding your own body weight in various positions, it serves as a great strength workout in addition to flexibility and mind-body training.

Unlike traditional resistance training, which focuses primarily on the concentric contraction (the muscle contracts as it shortens) of a muscle, yoga focuses primarily on the eccentric contraction (the muscle contracts as it stretches) of a muscle. The eccentric contraction component gives muscles a more elongated look, while concentric contractions give muscles a shorter, more bulgy, look. If you have ever seen an experienced yogi’s physique, it may resemble that of a gymnast, basketball player, or even a track athlete versus those who participate in more traditional forms of resistance training, who might resemble a football player or bodybuilder with more muscle hypertrophy.

Yoga tends to train small and large muscles all over the body due to its high demand for muscles to work in conjunction with each other to perform the different body movements in various planes of movement. This is good for the reason that you often tend to work smaller muscle groups that may get little to no attention when practicing machine-oriented resistance training. With a machine that focuses on a one-dimensional plane of movement, it’s often impossible to train multiple muscle groups at the same time. Therefore, yoga tends to be a better option for improving overall body strength along with achieving a more proportional muscular physique.

Other Wellness Benefits

Some additional notable benefits of yoga also include (but are not limited to) immune system boost, pain management, increase in gray brain matter and increase in balance, and function ability. As noted above, the mental and nervous system benefits of yoga must begin to take back priority. Although improving flexibility can be a great thing, many have found that these additional benefits are what separate this form of physical activity from any other form.

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This blog was written by Darius Felix, Health Fitness Instructor. To find out more about NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: yoga muscles focus flexibility digestion wellness nervous system mind-body