Sometimes I wonder how long I’ve had a problem with my vagus nerve. Years? Decades? Vagus means “wanderer.” This nerve—the longest one in your body—wanders all over your body to important organs such as the brain, neck, ears, tongue, heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, spleen, and reproductive organs in women. The vagus nerve contains motor and sensory fibers. It has wide distribution throughout the body as it passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen. Think of it as the most important nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system.
What Happens When the Vagus Underperforms
An amped-up perception of stress causes lower vagal tone (or responsiveness), which means the vagus nerve is having performance issues and operating at a lower capacity. If the vagus nerve isn’t happy, you won’t be healthy and are more likely to age faster. Conversely, high vagal tone is a marker of greater altruistic behavior and feeling closeness to others.
Lower vagal tone is linked to a variety of problems:
- Poor satiety or sense of relaxation while eating
- An overactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (including elevated corticotropin releasing hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and cortisol)
- Difficulty meditating, tuning into what’s happening with your body, and overall accessing the mind-body connection
- Low stomach acid secretion
- Poor absorption of B12
- Gut problems such as slow transit time or irritable bowel syndrome that causes constipation
- Low or slow bile acid production, so it’s harder to clear fats and toxins
- Poor blood flow to kidneys
- Higher blood pressure
- Poor glucose control
- Poor heart rate variability and greater risk of heart disease
- High resting heart rate
- Frequent urination
- Limited or absent capacity for orgasms
You may inherit a genetic predisposition to low vagal tone and increased anxiety through the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) gene (SNP ID rs6330), located on chromosome 1. The normal or wild type of the gene is C/T. The variants are interesting: if you inherited one C allele from one parent and one C allele from the other parent, if female you’re likely to be more anxious, and if male you’re less likely to be anxious. But genetics don’t make the final call. If you follow the approach I’ve summarized below, you may be able to circumvent a predisposition.
What to Do
Stress is going to drag you down and rob you of vagal tone unless you learn how to ride it well. Here are my favorite ways to reset vagal tone:
- Singing or chanting
- Social connection
- Rolling on two massage balls (I like to place them under my mid-back.)
These actions may trigger your stress genes to turn off, bringing a greater sense of calm. Learn more ways to improve vagal tone by picking up my book Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years wherever books are sold.
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