Stress, Anxiety, Fatigue, Bloating: Vagus Nerve Test & Vagal Tone ExercisesOct 05, 2022
Struggling with stress, anxiety, fatigue or bloating? You could have a dysfunction in your vagus nerve!
The vagus nerve is a nerve that runs from your brain down to your digestive tract and other organs. It’s constantly sending messages to and from your brain to your organs. If all is well in your body/life, your vagus nerve will happily keep your organs functioning as they should. But…if you’re experiencing chronic stress and inflammation, well this is where your vagus nerve can start acting dysfunctionally. Rather than allowing your body systems to function optimally (this happens in a relaxed “rest and digest” state), the vagus nerve will send signals of DANGER down to the gut and other organs, which will then cause dysfunctions in the way these organs operate. You’ll struggle to break down and absorb food, which will not only cause gut issues, but will cause deficiencies in other areas. Your hormones won’t be able to produce properly leading to PMS, infertility and painful periods. You’ll struggle to convert food into energy within your mitochondria. Your detox pathways will slow down and get clogged up. Plus more!
Assessing your Vagal Nerve
How can you tell if your vagus nerve needs some TLC, or what we call ‘toning’? You can assess your vagus nerve by looking at your uvula in your soft palate - the dangly bit at the back of your mouth (see pic below).
- Illuminate the soft palate with a torch (the light on your phone will work!).
- If you can’t see your uvula, you will need to depress your tongue with a paddle-pop stick or a spoon.
- Say ‘Ahhhhh.’ The soft palate should rise evenly on both sides of the uvula, pulling the uvula up in a straight line.
- An abnormal presentation would be if the uvula deviates to one side (or is pulled up on a slant by the soft palate), or if it stays still, or if it drops. All of these presentations would mean that your vagus nerve needs toning.
I remember when I first tested my vagus nerve, my uvula tilted to the side. It was a deviate little feller, and showed that my system was under a lot of stress (which was not surprising as it was at the height of the COVID-19 2020 pandemic!). A year later, I retested again, after working on regulating my nervous system, and wallah! My uvula rose evenly. This little test is so great to assess progress over time.
How to Tone Your Vagus Nerve
There are some simple exercises you can do to help tone your vagus nerve. These methods switch you out of your sympathetic nervous system (stressed-state) and into your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed state). It is in the parasympathetic nervous state that your vagus nerve functions at its best.
Gargling & Gagging
Gargling water can help stimulate your vagus nerve. Simply fill a cup with water, and gargle for 30 seconds at least once daily. Gagging is also a technique that can improve your vagal tone. It's not a pleasant way of toning the vagus nerve, but feel free to give it a go! Simply grab the bottom part of a spoon or a paddle-pop stick, and touch the back of your throat to elicit a gag response.
High on a hill with a lonely goat…Oh-da-lay oh-di-lay oh-di-doooo! Who else loves that song from The Sound of Music? Not only is it a catchy tune, but yodelling also has vagal tone stimulating properties. And you don’t have to be a good singer to yodle. Just burst out some yodelling while you’re in the shower or the car.
You may feel awkward humming at first, but please give this a try! You will feel so good afterwards! This is my most favourite way of toning the vagus nerve. Humming meditation is amazing for vagal toning, and also for helping you switch into your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed-state). The vibrations of the hum can stimulate the WHOLE body, especially the brain, creating a synthesis between the right and the left brain. It has been shown to create new neural pathways in the brain and has been used to treat neurological disorders. The energy that the vibration causes can also work to shift stagnant energy and unblock trauma inside your body. It’s an amazing technique that you can use, especially if you bottle up your stress and have trouble voicing your emotions and speaking your thoughts.
How to Perform
- Sit up straight in a comfortable position and take a deep breath in through your nose (if possible).
- As you exhale, hum for as long as you can until you need to take another breath in.
- Repeat this pattern for a minimum of 5-minutes. For best results, continue humming for 15-minutes (or longer!).
Note: Try starting with one note, and then change the notes to find what feels good for you. For extra vibrating power, find a buddy (or three!) to hum with. Humming in a pair or a group produces more energy, and you will find your body begins to vibrate in harmony with those you are humming with. It’s a beautiful bonding experience to do this with your partner, kids or friends. And it’s ok if you all end up laughing - that’s therapeutic too!
Alternating Nostril Breathing
Alternating Nostril Technique is a breathing exercise that has a very calming effect on the nervous system, and can instantly switch you from your sympathetic nervous system (stressed-state) to your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed-state). It has also been shown to help stimulate the vagus nerve. If you have poor vagal tone, or if you have abnormal adrenal stress hormone function, or depleted neurotransmitters, this technique will help aid in your healing.
In this technique, we have combined box breathing with alternating nostril breathing, to ramp up the beneficial effects. Box breathing maintains a repetitive breathing pattern - i.e. five seconds inhale, five seconds hold, five seconds exhale, five seconds hold, etc. Box breathing can heighten performance and concentration, while also being a powerful stress reliever.
How to Perform
- Place your right index finger in the middle of your forehead, and use your thumb to block your right nostril and your ring finger to block your left nostril.
- Start with blocking your right nostril only and inhale for five seconds, and hold for five seconds.
- Take your thumb off your right nostril and block your left nostril with your index finger, exhale, and hold for five seconds.
- Keep your left nostril blocked and inhale for five seconds, and hold for five seconds.
- Unblock your left nostril, and block your right nostril; exhale for five seconds, and hold.
- Continue this pattern until at least 5 minutes. Try working up to 15-minutes a day, or use throughout the day in times of stress or when you need more clarity.
If you can’t breathe in/exhale for five seconds, do it for less. But stay consistent with the rhythm - i.e. two seconds inhale, hold for two seconds; two seconds exhale, hold for two seconds. If you want more of a challenge, increase the seconds.
If you’re an avid “tester” and love to get more insight into the state of your health, you’ll also love our Ending Body Burnout Assessment. This quiz will give you a score and a report about your body burnout symptoms, as well as root causes coming from the body, mind and environment. Start the assessment here.
Filipa Bellette is Co-Founder of Chris & Filly Functional Medicine. She is an accredited Clinical Nutritionist & Functional Medicine Practitioner. She is also a Ph.D. thought-leader, award-winning writer, and regularly published as a guest blogger & in the media. Together with her husband Chris Bellette, Filipa has worked with over 2,000+ busy, burnout clients in the last 10+ years, and specialises in producing healthy, balanced, and happy Mums & Dads...or as she calls it, a Power Parent! Filipa’s own passion for producing high-performance Power Parents came from her own personal experience of Mummy Burnout, after having babies and juggling the demands of business, family, and her failing health.
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