Have you ever noticed that when you are super busy with work, under pressure of a deadline, worried, nervous or even just really excited about something - your digestion is all over the place?
You might be nervous about a talk you have to give the next day so you are up all night with irritable bowls, or you are so excited to go away on holiday but you end up 'blocked up' all week, bloated and uncomfortable?
Before you pop another probiotic and sip your kumbucha, read this first!
You see, when we are in states of stress or distress our sympathetic nervous system takes over - making sure that we have all the energy we need to quickly get ourselves out of a dangerous situation. Like giving us a physical boost so that we can outrun or fight off that bear we encountered on our hike. We know this as the fight, flight or freeze response. ( I wouldn't recommend trying to fight or outrun a bear, FYI).
Our body is extremely intelligent in knowing that in moments of stress, fear and even excitement, it can direct energy, blood flow and the appropriate chemicals to exactly where we need it. Everything gets quicker; our heart rate, our breath our reactions and alertness, even our movements become faster ( handy if you still want to try and outrun that bear, but please don't). Our blood flow is redirected and prioritised to the muscles so they are primed and ready for action. Great for iron man competitions, not so great for our iron guts. This diversion of blood flow, the restriction of our saliva and digestive enzymes, the releasing of the stress hormone cortisol, and the overall heightened tension in the body is exactly why our digestion suffers in these times. The body sees digestion as low priority in this moment, as well as immunity, repair and healing. This is OK, sometimes, when necessary and vital, but we tend to get stuck here in the stress response. What evolved in us to truly protect us from harms way, now is triggered too often, even by the simple ping of an email notification. That's where problems arise.
Meet your friend, the parasympathetic nervous system. This is your laid back, easy going side. You know, when you feel like "whatever man, it's all good". When we are in this relaxed state, our breath is slow, our heart rate is slow, our saliva flows, our muscles relax, and the blood flows to the vital organs, particularly the digestive track. When we are relaxed, the body has more energy to take care of itself, to do the laundry, to clean house, take out the trash and repair that broken step finally. We are able to properly digest food to absorb the most nutrients possible, rather than just robbing nearby (often important) energy stores. It's like when you have time to cook proper, nutritious meals rather than relaying on processed - low nutrient junk food. We want to make sure we visit this friend often, but just don't stay for too long, we also need that super speedy friend of ours too sometimes to get things done. In fact, what we want is a good balance.
We don't want to make the sympathetic nervous system sound like our 'bad side', not at all. It's needed, very much, we just need to make sure we are balancing it by activating the relaxation response also. Like a seesaw, moving up and down in a smooth and balanced rhythm, never getting stuck on one side or the other.
So what can we do?
No, I don't mean tone up your belly, arms or legs. We are talking about the tone of our vagus nerve.
“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” — Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
What is a vagus nerve and vagal tone you might ask? The vagus nerve, also known as the wandering nerve, is the longest nerve in your body. It travels around connecting the brain to important organs, like your intestines, stomach, heart and lungs for instance. It plays a key role in influencing these organs in response to what is happening in your nervous system. Vagal tone refers to the ability to activate the parasympathetic response. The higher your vagal tone, the quicker you can relax after a stressful event. That's a million times more important to your well being than how toned your abs are FYI! The bummer about this vagal tone thing, is that you are born with it. Your vagal tone is passed done through your genes. How well your family dealt with stress will affect how well you deal with stress. ( Thinks about family and drops head onto table with sigh).
But there is GOOD NEWS! You can improve your vagal tone at anytime, and alot of the exercises are actually just doing what you love to do! This isn't like toning your bum or thighs, it doesn't have to burn to work. Most importantly, do the things that make you feel relaxed and feel good. And do it often. Here are some great 'exercises' to improve your vagal tone.
- Deep slow breathing
- Cold exposure ( Save on your energy bills too!)
- Singing, humming, chanting, gargling ( Music is powerful)
- Probiotics ( I bet there is a sigh of relief there! Yes take them, and drink that kambucha tea, gut health = mental health)
- Restorative yoga, yoga nidra ( The kind where you just lay over a bolster and get softly spoken to for an hour or so, bliss!)
- Meditation ( Hey, I know a great teacher for the last 2 if you need one😉 )
- Exercise ( All is good! Do what you enjoy and what you will do often. Mix it up!)
- Omega 3 fatty acids ( Fish oils anyone? Vegan alternatives are available)
- Laughter ( Truly the best medicine)
- Socialising ( Sorry introverts, turns out, it's good for you!)
- Massage ( Any excuse really!)
- Chewing Gum! ( Yup, you read that right, turns out this is great stress release, although try not to click and pop so much, to not stress out those around you)
See, these aren't so bad right? Vagal tone is important, rest is important. Stepping off the treadmill of life and making sure you are getting enough recovery time is important. Take time for you. Your health is your greatest wealth, and your gut health is your mental health. If you are constantly in a state or reactivity, your body won't put the energy into rest, digest and healing that it needs, no matter what potion or pill promises it will fix you. You are your greatest doctor. Now prescribe yourself some good old fashion R&R.
Be happy, be healthy my friends :)