Primary practices that activate the vagus nerve and improve vagus tone
In the first part of this series on improving vaginal tone, I explained that The vagus nerve is the information highway of your autonomic nervous system. It connects your brain to organs and glands throughout your body and acts as the main line of your parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) nervous system. The activity of the vagus nerve affects almost every system in the body, including breathing, immunity, cardiovascular activity, digestion, and the gut microbiome.
The term “vagal tone” refers to how active your parasympathetic nervous system is. Ideally, we want high vagal tone as this indicates a generally relaxed state in which the body can focus on growth and repair. When the vagal tone is low, the sympathetic (“fight-flight-freeze”) nervous system dominates. This is not good. The sympathetic nervous system should step in when we need to respond to an acute threat or stressor, but we don’t want it to run in the background all the time.
Unfortunately, a chronically stressed, person-dominant state is the norm for most people these days. Scientists are always looking for ways to alleviate this stress and reduce the medical burden associated with it. Some researchers are investigating pharmaceutical agents for improving vaginal tone, along with protocols for using electrical stimulation. However, you do not need these high-tech processes. Once you start digging into the science of the vagus nerve, you notice something cool: Most of the things we promote in the Primal community are likely to improve vagal tone.
Mark did not think of the vagus nerve when he formulated the 10 Primordial Laws. However, I suspect that vagus nerve stimulation is a common underlying thread that connects them. It’s a great example of science confirming what we already know: a An original lifestyle reduces stress, strengthens resilience and is an all-round better way of life. Here are some examples of popular primal practices that are empirically linked to improving vagal tone.
Exposure to cold
Are you one of those Primal people, like our own Brad Kearns, who absolutely love their ice baths? Well, there is a reason it “hurts so much”. When you immerse yourself in cold water, the blood vessels constrict and the blood is redirected to your core. This triggers an increase in the parasympathetic nervous system and a decrease in sympathetic activity. If you were to measure, you would see your HRV go up as you chill in cold water (literally). Friends who have managed to incorporate daily ice baths into their routine tell me that they long for it. If they skip a day, they kind of feel bad. That’s likely because they’re not getting the parasympathetic stimulation their body expects.
Can’t quite bring yourself to immerse yourself in cold water? Try ending your regular shower with a swell of cold water. You even get some of the same benefits from splashing cold water or applying ice packs to your face. Another option is whole body cryotherapy.
Interacting with other people and building strong social bonds is fundamentally human. We are meant to be in fellowship with other people. Loneliness and social isolation affect mental and physical health. Many large-scale research studies show that lonely or socially isolated people are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammation, suppressed immune function, and death.
The autonomic nervous system probably plays an important role in this. Numerous studies have taken a lower vaginal tone
- Chronically lonely but otherwise healthy women
- Students abroad with low social connections in the host country
- Unmarried versus married people (even better if you are happily married)
Lonely people cannot buffer stress as well as their socially connected brethren. You are at a higher risk of getting sick from external stressors or pathogens. A recent study even found that lonely participants with lower HRV also had shorter telomeres, a marker of cell aging. The researchers concluded that when loneliness leads to decreased parasympathetic activity, we age faster!
It doesn’t take a whole village to be healthy, but it’s great to have one. Psychologists believe that just having a close relationship can make a world of difference.
Can social connection create an upward spiral of health and happiness?
In one study, researchers had participants participate in a loving-kindness meditation for one hour each week for six weeks. Meditation on loving kindness means offering messages of love, compassion, and support to yourself and others – for example, to those closest to you, your community, your country, and all of humanity. The results showed that the practice of loving kindness increased participants’ positive emotions and perceived social connection, which in turn improved vagal tone.
With this knowledge, no actual social interactions are required to reap the benefits. Even thinking about meaningful social connections can increase vagal tone. In addition, the authors posit that this becomes a self-sustaining cycle: social connection improves vagal tone, which increases positive emotions, which makes people feel more connected, further increases vagal tone, and so on.
Some limited research also suggests that Laugh, To sing, and sing– all activities that are traditionally social in nature but that you can also do alone – promote cardiovascular health, possibly through improved vaginal tone.
Primal Blueprint Law No. 3 tells us to avoid sedentary work. Our ancestors would have moved many times during the day to do the day-to-day business of staying alive. Heart disease is relatively rare in traditional societies, partly because they engage in so much constant, low-level activities.
One of the reasons exercise improves insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular health, and neurological function is because it increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. BDNF has far-reaching effects throughout the body and randomly stimulates the vagus nerve.
Any kind of exercise is likely to be beneficial as long as it doesn’t get into chronic cardio territory. Small studies have documented HRV improvements in walking, especially in nature, qigong, yoga, and tai chi. However, some of the benefits may not be due to the exercise itself. These exercises all have a breathing work component, and we know that slow and nasal breathing improves vagal tone regardless of the exercise.
Intermittent fasting offers well-documented health benefits, particularly in relation to risk factors for cardiovascular disease, insulin sensitivity, inflammation and oxidative stress, and other markers of metabolic health. Many of these benefits are likely mediated, at least in part, through vagus activity. The vagus nerve communicates information between the brain and the body and facilitates the physiological response to fasting.
As with exercise, intermittent fasting also stimulates BDNF production. Experts suggest that BDNF increases parasympathetic (vagal) activity in neurons connected to the gut, arteries, and heart. Alternating fasting and calorie restriction both increase HRV in rats. Fasting also suppresses sympathetic nervous system activity, and sober rats are less stress-reactive. More research is needed in humans.
While intermittent fasting doesn’t necessarily mean a calorie restriction, in practice the two often go hand in hand. Calorie restriction alone can increase HRV and parasympathetic activity.
Preserve your omega-3 fatty acids
Primitive humans appreciate the myriad benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for reducing inflammation and improving immune function. That’s why we all eat lots of small, greasy fish and supplement them as needed, right?
Great, because omega-3s also increase HRV and improve other cardiovascular health markers. Research has linked omega-3 intake to HRV in infants, healthy adults, dialysis patients, the elderly, and people with coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes.
Vaginal tone is just one way that omega-3s improve health, but hey, it’s as good a reason as any to make a serving of sardine butter, right?
About the author
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is Senior Writer and Community Manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Marks Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the what, why, and how of a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her Masters and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was also a researcher and lecturer.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sport-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping and game nights. Follow @theusefuldish on Instagram as Lindsay tries to balance work, family, and cardio while maintaining a healthy balance and, most importantly, enjoying life. More information is available at www.lindsaytaylor.co.
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