Do you know how to switch off?
Do you know the feeling of coming home after a long day of work, completely exhausted but yet not being able to switch off and relax?
I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say we’ve ALL been there. Some more than others, but with the constant exposure to news, social media, emails we are always in this hyperarousal state and it seem impossible to even think “It’s time to switch off and chill”
Don’t get me wrong, stress is positive when acute (meaning it resolves quickly). It can actually be motivating and give us a push to get things done. But we should also be able to recognise when we’ve been here for too long. Now we are in a sympathetic state, the “fight-or-flight” mode, where our senses are heightened, the adrenaline is rushing and the heart is pacing.
Instead, we want to spend most of the time in a parasympathetic state, our “rest and digest” mode. Here we feel safe and relaxed, we’re breathing slowly and everything in our body works optimally.
But how can we make the switch to this sounds-almost-too-nirvana state?
Enters the vagus nerve
As the name vagus suggests (from the Latin “vagus” meaning “wanderer”) the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. In fact it connects the brain with many other vital organs such as the heart, the lungs and the gut (forming the nowadays popular gut-brain axis).
As the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, it is essential for many vital functions including regulating our breathing, heart rate, digestive function and even mood.
A higher vagal tone means your body can relax more easily and quickly after a stressful event. High vagal tone is associated with positive emotions, positive thinking, good physical and mental health, while a low vagal tone is observed in low mood, depression and anxiety disorders.
Because of its many functions and link with other organs in the body, vagus nerve stimulation has been suggested as part of treatment plans for treatment-resistant depression, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and even Irritable Bowel Disease (source).
The type of stimulation used for depression involves using an electrical stimulator attached to a specific spot in the ear.
But there are simpler, everyday steps you can implement to “exercise” and increase your vagal tone to help you switch off and relax.
How to switch off with ease? Toning the vagus nerve
Regular exposure to cold activates the vagus nerve and has been linked to an increased parasympathetic activity rest and digest mode).
Tips – Try finishing with a cold rinse in the shower; alternating water temperature in the shower from warm to cold; or if you want to embrace your inner Wim Hoff you can sit in a bathtub of iced water for short periods of time. This has also shown to lower inflammation. Avoid cold showers if your adrenals are overworked, as it may increase cortisol. Splashing your face with cold water can give you quick relief if you’re particularly stressed or stuck in circular thinking.
A taste that has unfortunately gone missing in our modern days (and plates).
Bitter receptors on the tongue are directly connected to the vagus nerve and amongst other things they can improve digestion by stimulating enzyme secretion.
Tips – Reintroduce bitter tasting foods in your meals. Rocket, radicchio, kale, dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, collards, watercress are all bitter greens and make up a nice starter salad to have before your main dish.
Lemon (with the peel) and apple cider vinegar are great alternatives.
If you prefer, bitter tinctures are also available for the same purpose, but as always check if they’re suitable for you.
Use your vocal cords
Chanting, singing, humming, gargling can all improve vagal tone as the vagus nerve is linked to the vocal cords and muscles in the throat.
‘Om’ chants are being considered as part of treatment plans for depression (source), which I think is pretty amazing
Tips – Channel your inner diva and start belting those tunes whenever you feel like it
Deep and slow breathing
Good for relieving feelings of anxiety and stress.
Slow, diaphragmatic breathing activates the vagus nerve and helps you switch off and relax.
Tips – Find a moment of stillness to sit and slow down your breathing.
There are many different breathing techniques, buteyko breathing, the 4-7-8 breathing, all of them are great. Slow, mindful breathing can also be useful if stress is causing you to lose sleep.
Earlier I mentioned how the vagus nerve connects the brain to the intestine through the gut-brain axis. Supplementing with specific probiotics strains can help modulate the stress response and promote calming neurotransmitters such as GABA. And the vagus nerve acts like the pathway in this process (source).
Tips – Probiotics are available in food as well as supplements.
Food sources include fermented foods: sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir, miso, kimchi.
Some of the effective probiotic strains available as supplements include Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum.
Whether that’s a self massage or done by a therapist, this is never a bad idea.
Massaging certain areas of the body like near the throat, behind the ear and the feet can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Tips – Give yourself a foot rub with some lavender infused oil before bed; extend your skincare routine to the neck and chest, massaging well to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Alongside the release of endorphins, exercising is another great way to improve vagal tone, independently of the type of exercise.
Tips – Choose a form of movement you enjoy and commit to it 30min a day
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