Today’s society is slowly turning a corner that is going to start a revolution in mental health. For too many decades, we have considered our mental health and associated states as a response of our brain to something stressful that is happening around us. Today? Holistic practitioners, wellness experts and some Doctors are racing towards understanding the root cause of many mental health challenges goes so much deeper.
Research, research and more research is showing that depression is actually a ‘body’ experience, not just a ‘mind’ experience - and is a highly complex process driven by imbalances in neurotransmitters and hormones, gut dysbiosis, extensive nutrient and mineral imbalances and deficiencies, suppressed and unprocessed emotional trauma, nervous system dysregulation and chronic inflammation of the brain and body and more.
And the revolution? There might be a common thread that runs between many of these.
It’s known as the vagus nerve - and we are starting to understand the major part it plays in depression.
On top of that? There is fresh evidence showing that vagus nerve stimulation may actually hold healing benefits - not only for the body as a whole but also in the treatment of depression.
Back to basics - what is the vagus nerve?
To start with, whilst a bit misleading, the vagus nerve is not just one nerve - it is a large network that makes up a large part of our nervous system (the parasympathetic side). It is involved with all things ‘rest and digest’ - think our digestive response, immune response, heart rate, mood and more. It is the part of the nervous system that helps us slow down, switch off, relax, etc.
The vagus nerve is a key connection between the brain and the gut (ever had butterflies in your stomach and wondered where they are coming from?). It makes up part of the ‘gut-brain axis’ that you may have heard about - and it is the longest nerve connection in the body.
If the vagus nerve is working properly (we call this a good vagal tone), it suggests the body is working well to regulate the heart and how it is beating - we call this the heart’s flexibility and variability (i.e. its ability to switch between a stressful situation with higher heart rate, and a more relaxed situation with a lower heart rate). Taking it one step further, the gaps between your heartbeats (essentially the time between each beat) is known as your heart rate variability - and a resilient body is able to handle changes in this well and without causing follow on problems.
The stronger your vagal tone, the better the body will be at shifting out of a stress response (think fight or flight) and into a relaxed (rest and digest) state.
The weaker the vagal tone, the less well the body is at doing these things. Often, a low vagal tone is a sign that the vagus nerve isn’t working, acting and functioning in the way that it should - potentially leading to major ramifications such as an exacerbated or sustained stress response, which may, over time, become a chronic condition - leading to mental health challenges such as anxiety, OCD, phobias, obsessive and intrusive thoughts, chronic inflammation, gut issues - and also depression.
What does this mean in practice?
What is wild is that research is starting to show that stimulation of strands of the vagus nerve in the gut is a quickfire way to activate specific parts of the brain - particularly the parts that manage, modulate and create neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and others.
It is these neurotransmitters that are needed to make us feel things - and without enough dopamine, for example, we are going to experience low moods.
In short, the vagus nerve, and the way it functions, is a great mirror into your body’s resiliency - and how your wider body is functioning.
How to stimulate the vagus nerve?
The amazing thing about the vagus nerve, and the body more generally, is that many of us are not born with problems - they are things that develop over time as a response to what is going on in the world around us. Think, the situations we come into contact with, the food, water and air we consume, and the stressful situations we do not process properly.
We can stimulate our vagus nerve and work towards helping it do the job it was created to do - to help us have a balanced, happy, body and mind.
Top tips for stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone?
You may have heard, more recently, that when you are having a panic attack, you shouldn’t just focus on short breaths in and out, but you should actually focus on a longer exhale than your inhale. Research studies have started to focus on how breathing (particularly deep, slow breathing that involves your diaphragm) can help improve heart rate variability (the flexibility of your heart to shift between beats) - as well as activating parts of the vagus nerve that help to calm you down.
In practice, however, this is known as ‘minor vagal stimulation’ - with similar benefits also being able to be gained from cold water immersion therapy / cold plunges / cold dips, yoga and meditation practices and tai chi, amongst others.
Other free methods that stimulate the vagus nerve and that cost nothing include gargling (why not double whammy and gargle with salt water at the same time to cleanse your oral cavity) and singing and humming.
As well as these do it yourself vagal toning exercises (you can start with just 30 seconds in a cold shower at the end of your daily wash routine), the wellness industry is also exploring stimulation of the vagus nerve from outside of the body (think, through the skin) through physical devices.
These new devices are starting to be used as meditation supports that activate the vagus nerve as part of a meditative experience - helping you to take your meditation one step further.
And for those with more severe conditions?
For those who light touch vagal stimulation doesn’t help (such as people with epilepsy or severe and chronic depression that has not responded to a vast variety of treatments - as well as severe unipolar and bipolar disorders), longer-term and more controlled vagus nerve stimulation is also being explored.
Currently, neurosurgeons are looking at implanting a generator into the chest of patients which can then be controlled from outside of the body by a third party.
Mental health is a spectrum, and we all experience different challenges along this journey that we call life. Depending on what challenges you face, it is amazing to understand the power that lies in accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve.
Working with the vagus nerve (and increasing vagal tone) is something that we can all benefit from, particularly to help us build a more resilient, less hyper-sensitive nervous system and physiology, that can support us day in, day out, through whatever life throws our way.
Find what works for you.
Perhaps start with cold plunges, gargling whilst you shower, and singing (and dancing!) your heart out when you need to take a break from work. Or maybe it’s easier for you to incorporate calming breathwork, yoga and meditative practices into your busy schedule.
Whatever works, commit to incorporating small practices and start to see how these small and incremental changes can lead to a happier, healthier and more balanced you over time.
And isn’t that what we all really want? Happiness, contentment and balance.
To better mental health.
By Louise Rumball / @iamlouiserumball
***THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED OR REGULATED BY THE FDA. WE ARE NOT DOCTORS, THEREFORE ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST.