Stress, digestion and the vagus nerve

As we are entering another lockdown for at least the next six weeks here in the UK, I am feeling grateful that I spent the end of last year starting to find out more about how to rebalance a nervous system that might not be working optimally owing to stress, fear or trauma (or indeed injury). The undercurrent of worry that is permeating my existence from looking at exponential graphs is not doing anything for my ‘rest and digest’ arm of the nervous system – overseen by the ventral vagus nerve – and instead is really gearing up the fight or flight, or freeze arms: the sympathetic nervous system and dorsal vagus nerve.

For the last few weeks, I have been regularly practicing the ‘basic exercise’ designed by hands-on therapist Dr Stanley Rosenburg to activate the ventral vagus nerve and reignite a state of social engagement. I’ll walk you through it below – but since I started this practice, I have been sleeping better and dreaming more vividly than I have in years.

Increasing vagal tone

Stimulating the vagus nerve is something that I often talk to my clients about, as ventral vagal activity is responsible for swallowing; the secretion of saliva, stomach acid and digestive enzymes; and stimulating the smooth muscles surrounding the digestive tract to help move food along. If the vagus nerve is not working well, you are at greater risk of constipation, small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth and reduced absorption of nutrients – as well as poorer digestion which can lead to increased food reactivity.

Vigorous gargling – put some real effort in – is one way of activating the ventral vagus – as you are effectively doing a work out for your swallowing muscles. Stimulating a gag reflex using a tongue depressor is another (less pleasant – but also highly effective).

Other ways of stimulating the vagus include breathing exercises, singing loudly, meditation, cold showers or cold water on the face, and trauma release exercises, which induce tremoring.

The basic exercise

Dr Stanley Rosenburg’s book ‘Harnessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve’ has a lot of information about rebalancing the different arms of the nervous system – and provides some self-help exercises at the back.

The basic exercise is really straight forward and goes as follows:

  1. Before you start, evaluate the relative freedom of movement of your head and neck. Rotate your head to the right as far as it can go comfortably, come back to the centre, pause, and then rotate your head to the left. Evaluate if there is any pain or stiffness, and how you feel.
  2. To start, lie on your back (in time when you are familiar with the exercise you can do this sitting on a chair or standing). I suggest doing this in bed when you wake up, and again before you go to sleep to begin with – and the routine helps you to remember to do it regularly.
  3. Interlace your fingers and place these behind the back of your head, with the weight of your head resting on your hands. If you have a stiff shoulder, you can do this with just one hand.
  4. Keeping your head in place, look to the right moving only your eyes as far as you comfortably can. Do not turn your head; just move your eyes. Keep looking to the right.
  5. After a short period of time, up to 30 or 60s say, you will swallow, yawn or sigh. This is a sign of relaxation in your autonomic nervous system.
  6. Bring your eyes back to looking straight ahead.
  7. Repeat the movement to the other side: Keep your head still, and move your eyes to the left. Wait until you yawn before bringing your eyes back to the centre.
  8. Now you have completed the exercise, take your hands away and sit or stand up. Try rotating your head to the right and left again. Has there been any change in your range of movement? Has your breathing changed? Do you notice anything else?

For more information, I suggest you buy the book. It’s a really interesting read.


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