Do You Know The Importance Of Vagal Tone?

vagal tone

Vagal Tone

Vagal Tone & What It Can Tell Us

The vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve in regulating organs, in simplest terms. The vagus nerve runs from the brain to the colon. It is a critical part of the parasympathetic nervous system that influences vital organs like the heart, lungs and digestive tract.

Most people are familiar with the “fight or flight” response that the sympathetic nervous system controls. Essentially, it’s the body’s reaction to something that is stressful, either mentally or physically. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into “high gear”. Heart rate and blood pressure go up as the sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of catecholamines to push oxygen through the body. Pupils may dilate for a heightened sense of awareness.

Throughout human history, the sympathetic nervous system came to the rescue when confronted by wild animals, natural disasters, man-made disasters, etc. As the threat passed, the parasympathetic supplied signals that promoted relaxation and digestion. Unfortunately, the on-going stress from modern lifestyles often keeps the “fight or flight” sympathetic system in play longer for many of us than is healthy.

High And Low Vagal Tones

People react differently to stress. Some recover quickly while others need more time. We know the vagus nerve plays a critical role and vagal tones (or cardiac vagal tones) are a measure of that. For those with a high vagal tone, the vagus nerve can do its thing more quickly. For those with a low vagal tone, the organs get less relax time. This can lead to inflammatory conditions, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, chronic fatigue, and more. 

Can I Improve Vagal Tone?

Yes. In his Psychology Today article, Christopher Bergland highlighted a simple approach:

Vagal activity is highest, and heart rate lowest, when you’re exhaling.

For those of you who practice a form of mindfulness exercise (e.g., prayer, yoga, tai chi, qi gong) the power of breath is no surprise. Many people have taken up mindfulness exercises to deal with daily stress. This usually involves deep breaths with slow exhales. Mental images or guided imagery might help participants stay focused on the breath. The key is slow, focused exhales that help vagal activity. 

Just think about it for a moment. A deep relaxing breath is just that. It feels good to breath deeply and exhale slowly. The body relaxes. The opposite is also true. Fast breaths with short exhalations do not feel good. In extreme situations this can lead to hyperventilation.  Such erratic breathing is often found with strong emotional states like depression, anger, and fear. The mind, body, spirit simply cannot compensate for all the stressors. Our wellbeing suffers.

As we know, mental health issues have been increasing for a number of reasons in our modern society.  This takes a toll on us physically through so many chronic diseases and deaths of despair. Spiritually, we continue to feel isolated, lonely, abandoned. Wearing down your mind, body, spirit wellbeing can become a vicious cycle. Or it can be an opportunity to learn and grow.

Modern lifestyle will not likely change anytime soon. Take a nice cleansing breath start with improving your vagal tone now. Let your mind, body, and spirit flourish in a virtuous cycle!

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