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Yoga and stress reduction:  The benefits of creating high vagal tone.

Brenda Burris Drake 

When I was working in the corporate world for years and years, I noticed that some days I was able to handle stressful situations much more easily than others. Sometimes the thought of making a presentation in front of a group of people would make me anxious and nervous, other days I had no problem making a presentation, running  a meeting or confronting people with some very difficult issues

 

So why is it that some days we can take on the world without getting all tied in a knot and other days the smallest thing can set us off? There are undoubtedly numerous answers to these questions but, on a physiological level, researchers have discovered that our stress resilience levels are connected to the vagus nerve or what is also called the “vagal tone”. In this paper we will explore the effects of the vagus nerve on our reactions to stressful events and how yoga and other practices such as mindful breathing and pranayama can be beneficial  to our stress resilience levels and ultimately help with the reduction of anxiety

 

The Vagus Nerve Connection 

 So what is the vagus nerve and what is its role in our response to stressful situations? The vagus nerve, our tenth cranial nerve, also called the “wandering nerve” because it meanders through the body,   regulates heart and breath rate and controls our voice tone, organs, and digestive tract.  Our vagus nerve branches out to the throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs as well. It has a lot to do with our overall health and ability to release hormones. The vagus nerve is kinda like the kingpin dispatcher of our physical body—sending and receiving messages from the brain about when to digest, what to feel and when to breathe. This makes it an essential player in building stress resilience.

The Stress Loop

Yoga and pranayama and their effects on the various systems within the body can help regulate the vagus nerve and the nervous system.  This is how. The “fight or flight” mechanism within our body is a result of what’s called the “stress loop”. When your mind perceives a danger or stressful situation it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which can dump stress hormones into your body. Your body responds by taking blood to the large skeletal muscles and you being to breathe faster. Your body is now in the “fight or flight” mode, sending a signal of readiness to your brain. The brain perceives that your body is ready to pounce and interprets it as confirmation that there is some sort of danger. The stress response continues and keeps the body in a fight-or-flight mode, which sends those stress signals back to the brain, creating the “stress loop”. 

Vagal nerve function has a strong relationship to the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for rest, digestion, and reproductive functions. It is also the key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This wandering nerve can help us de-stress and get healthy. However, most of our lives are spent in the sympathetic nervous system, the fight, flight, or freeze modes. When the sympathetic nervous system is active, then stress hormones flood our systems, creating a state of dis-ease within. Therefore, it is important we learn how to activate our vagus nerve.

Cortisol Hormones 

This stress loop can also effect the release of the hormone cortisol into the body. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal cortex, that regulates carbohydrate metabolism, maintains blood pressure, and is released in response to stress.  It helps us meet life’s challenges by converting proteins into energy, and counteracting inflammation. For a short time, that’s okay. But at sustained high levels, cortisol gradually tears your body down. 

Cortisol is one essential we can’t live without. But on the other end of the spectrum it can harm the body. How is that possible? Well  sustained high cortisol levels can create some not so great results in the body over time. Cortisol can  slow down healing and normal cell regeneration,  mess with the biochemicals needed to make other vital hormones, interfere with healthy endocrine function; and weaken your immune system. So cortisol is a good hormone when “fight” is needed. When we need that high adrenaline activity, cortisol is part of that response.  These negative side effects  can lead to adrenal fatigue and may be a factor in many related conditions, including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, premature menopause, and some other chemical imbalances that have been linked to cancer. 

So how does one break out of the high adrenaline levels or the “stress loop”? In order to do this, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest-mode). There are two ways to do this – convince your mind that there is no more danger or stop the biological stress response so that the body signals the mind that it is no longer in a stress situation. And now we are back to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve communicates both the “fight or flight” and the “rest and digest” messages since it is responsible for most of parasympathetic messaging both from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain. And since 80% of the vagus nerve’s fibers communicate the information from the body to the brain, one could argue that the state of the body has a great impact on the state of the mind. 

Interestingly, the state of our vagus nerve can be measured. Scientists developed a measure called heart rate variability, which tracks the time between heart beats. When there is variability between heart beats, this implies “high vagal tone,” which is correlated with good stress resilience. When there is little variability between heart beats, this implies “low vagal tone,” which is correlated with poor stress resilience. So, when there is flexibility in our heartbeats, rather than a rigid beating, we are more resilient. 

Researcher Chris Streeter, PHD, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, recently released an article, “Effects of Yoga on the Autonomic  Nervous System, Gamma-aminobutyriic acid, and Allostasis in Epilepsy, Depression, and Post-traumatic stress disorder.”  detailing what are believed to be the underlying physiological mechanisms of the body and brain.  

The effects of yoga’s impact on the body and brain led Chris and team to hypothesize that yoga helps regulate the nervous system by increasing vagal tone. Improvements in vagal tone have been shown to correlate with reductions in allostatic load (the amount of stress we accumulate over time.) Researchers believe that the reason yoga helps increase resilience and well-being is because of its positive impact on vagal tone.  Some 

Yoga practice includes connecting the body and the breath and there are ways to help stimulate the vagus nerve and help increase the level of vagal tone in the body.

Below are a couple of pathways to the vagus nerve:

  • Immerse your face (especially the forehead, eyes, and two-thirds of your cheeks) in cold water for three minutes.

  • Practice restorative yoga and include gentle backbends, forward bends, and twists.

  • Include inversions in your practice like downward dog or legs up the wall.

  • Chant and sing in low resonant tones.

  • Immerse your tongue in saliva while doing long deep breathing.

  • Practice Qigong.

  • Laugh with deep diaphragmatic laughs.

 

Effects of yoga

Since six out of the seven methods pathways (above) to the vagus nerve can be found in the different paths of yoga, let’s explore some of the ways in which yoga can help increase the vagal tone.  And since the vagus nerve can be strengthened, through lifestyle, practice, and intention, exploring the ways that yoga can help increase vagal tone is worthwhile. One of the best ways is through moderate to intensive  exercise.  Exercise improves heart rate variability, the marker of vagal tone and studies show that regular exercise in healthy adults, as well as adults with cardiovascular disease, can and does improve vagal tone. The workout doesn’t have to be long—just 20 minutes can have an impact. 

 

Asana

The various asanas that are found in yoga are accessible to a wide range of people.  In the western world yoga has become more of a type of exercise than a path of spiritual practice.  But the great thing about asana practice is that it is portable, affordable, easy to access and requires almost no investment in equipment and materials.  So a 20 minute asana practice can be found almost anywhere in our daily lives. It can happen at home, at the office, or even on a plane. 

 

Meditation

At the Medical College of Wisconsin, a study done on African American patients that had heart problems showed that transcendental meditation helped patients lower their blood pressure, stress and anger compared with patients who attended a health education class. 

It has also been found that metta meditation, a loving kindness meditation, can have an effect on  vagal tone. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson found that for those who practiced this type of meditation, reported increases in warm and loving feelings as well as improved vagal tone.   

 

Effects of pranayama

One of the best ways to improve the vagal tone is through deep diaphragmatic breathing.  By breathing slow and deep  you can control the depth of your breathing (to a certain degree) and the muscles of your larynx (that open and close the vocal cords). These muscles touch or branch into the vagus nerve. t The depth of breath and the muscles of your larynx could then be the two most effective ways to facilitate the parasympathetic nervous response. 

It is not a surprise then, that a suggested technique for parasympathetic activation is deep diaphragmatic breathing.  It makes sense – sympathetic response leads to short fast breathing bordering on hyperventilation. The parasympathetic activation leads to deep relaxed breathing (since your airways constrict and you need to take time to breathe in and out to get the same amount of air in). If you take in air too quickly, your brain will perceive it as an invitation to fight or flight, and if you seep the air in and let it out slowly your brain will take it as an invitation to rest and digest. 

This practice is undoubtedly one of the best ways to improve the strength of the vagus nerve. Scientists argue that this is one reason why yoga is so powerful—because of the emphasis on the breath. It helps us relax by activating the vagus nerve and supporting our nervous system. Thus, slow abdominal breathing can improve vagal tone. In addition, Ocean Breath (Ujjayi pranayama), in which you create a gentle constriction in the back of your throat, can further enhance the benefits. The vagus nerve touches the throat, so creating a little bit of friction in the throat as you breathe can help stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone.  Below are some of the benefits of vagus nerve strengthening. 

The benefits of vagus nerve stimulation  

  • It reduces the inflammatory response throughout our system.

  • It helps the brain emit new cells.

  • It decreases depression and anxiety and lifts our mood. Forty million Americans are affected by mood disorders. 

  • It assists in developing razor-sharp memory, and there are so many applications for increased memory capacity in our culture like Alzheimer’s work, traumatic brain injuries, and plain-and-simple everyday life.

  • It raises your immunity and the level of endorphins, which bring about positive feelings in the body and reduce the sensation of stress.

 

 

The practice of mindfulness on and stress reduction

The basic concept of mindfulness is about being present in the moment. Mindfulness author and instructor, Jon Kabat-Zinn has put it, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.  Mindfulness or contemplative practice has its roots in several of the world’s major belief systems – but you don’t have to subsribe to any particular religion or philosophy to experience mindfulness. There has been much rhetoric and bubbling up of this practice in the news and in recent studies.  In fact it seems as if mindfulness is the new kale super food. The word is found on adult coloring books and vegan food labels. Some of the increased talk about mindfulness may have something to do with the fact that in today’s fast paced world we are multitasking way too much.  In 2013 a study from the University of Southern California estimated that the average American consumes an astonishing 13-plus hours of media a day.  Thus it’s no coincidence that we find ourselves increasingly barraged with distractions. Today’s consumer struggles with an overload of information. Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, notes that in our competitively frantic culture, “people are feeling a little desperation. It used to be you left work and went home. Now you’ve got your devices that follow you everywhere. The body is designed to be energetic and active and then recover. People don’t have any recovery time.  There’s this silent, invisible ratcheting up of invasion of our space.” It seems everyone one is multi-tasking and the more you do that, the more you become less mindful. 

 

New research out of the University of California, Irvine, reveals that not only do people tend to move from activity to activity with an alarming pace (every three minutes) during the course of a typical workday, but it can take them significantly longer to get back on the original task.  And therefore people find themselves in the vicious cycle of needing to be in touch and checking our personal devices just to feel productive. Rather than being still and mindful of the process to complete a task, we can find ourselves taking  longer to achieve that which we set out to do. 

This increased distraction and need for device connectivity is causing a level of anxiety and “busyness” that is causing lots of waste within our lives and our workplaces. A recent analysis of American workers found that despite the rise of corporate “wellness” programs, disengagement (or use of devices for personal and business purposes) at the office costs the U.S. a whopping $550 billion each year, and work related stress tacks on an additional $300 billion. 

One can see evidence everywhere of the need for ways to combat the high stress levels in our lives. Hospitals across the country are increasingly using meditation, yoga, guided imagery and similar alternative practices as part of the health-care offerings to patients under- going surgery, pain management, cancer treatments and more. In fact, a 2012 study by the National Institutes of Health found that more than 33% of Americans said they had used alternative health practices, including meditation over the course of the year. 

 

My personal transformation and life stress reduction plan

My lifelong yoga journey began to influence my everyday life about a decade ago. One of the ways I began to control feelings of anxiety at work was by activating my ujjayi breath within my cubicle. If I was preparing for a meeting  and before possible stressful situations.  I would begin to breathe slow and deep, tapping into my parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating my vagus nerve. Instead of thinking of the worst outcome, I began to work on my inner dialogue as well.  I worked on affirmations meditations and controlling some of the feelings that I carried around with me from early job related experiences.  Over time this process proved effective. I began to change my thinking about being more present, enjoying some of the connections I had at work and trying to stay focused on what I could control and letting go of those things that I could not. I was also growing my yoga practice and teaching yoga twice a week after work. I found that yoga class was where I could create a type of “flow”. Doing something that felt almost as another state of being was helping me to deal with my daily work. Over time I began to see that the stress levels in my job were not worth the strain and stress. With time and commitment to improve my life, I transformed my role from corporate vice president to passionate yoga teacher. I continue this journey through my teacher training and by practicing what I teach. 

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