I’ve shared a lot about how stress is connected with poor gut health and lowered immunity. Stress impacts an inflammatory response throughout your body, which, if it occurs frequently, can be detrimental to your overall health. Stress and inflammation are truly at the core of most diseases. The obvious answer is to lower your stress load and up self-care, but even if you can’t do that, there are a few ways that you can stimulate a relaxing response throughout your body when you’re feeling stressed.
Let’s back up and have a quick anatomy refresher: The body has two key parts of the autonomic nervous system that are important to understand in relation to gut health and managing anxiety: the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System: “Fight or Flight”
This system prepares the body to react to outside stressors, such as an injury, virus or other imminent threat. When this system is activated, it leads to an increased heart rate and breath. It also makes our muscles contract and tighten. When you go into “fight or flight” mode, your body actually interrupts digestion by diverting blood away from your digestive system and to your muscles and other parts needed to better allow you to “fight” or “flee” from a threat. This is one reason why many people who have experienced significant stress or trauma have digestive issues.
While our bodies were wired this way to keep us safe from danger (like, a BEAR chasing us), our nervous system cannot differentiate one kind of “threat” or stress from another, which means even everyday stress, like public speaking, or stress from your job, can have the same impact on your body.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System: “Rest & Digest”
Quite the opposite, this system controls the body when its at rest. It helps to maintain homeostasis, or peace, in your body. When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system helps to slow your breathing and heart rate. It releases tight muscles, and allows digestion to occur.
While you can’t totally control these responses, there are a FEW things that ARE in your control, which can have an impact on these systems, like exercise, breathing, and other relaxation techniques. One of my favorite things to focus on when trying to activate a parasympathetic response is the Vagus Nerve.
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It establishes one of the connections between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract (known as the “brain-gut axis”). This nerve has become a focus in both anxiety recovery and treating gastrointestinal issues. By focusing on stimulating this nerve, one can bring on both a sense of relaxation and improved digestion.
In addition to creating an intense sense of relaxation, an activated vagus nerve is also known to sharpen memory, fight inflammatory disease and blog systemic inflammation from occurring, helping with sleep, lessen allergic responses and depression, block cortisol and other oxidizing agents, and lower blood pressure.
Activating the Vagus Nerve
It’s easier than you might think! The nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so the best ways to activate it all relate to that part of your body. Here are 10 quick tips to help stimulate your vagus nerve:
Deep breathing from your diaphragm.
Breathing out longer than you breathe in (my favorite form of this is 4-7-8 breath — breathe IN for a count of 4, HOLD for a count of 7 and breathe OUT for a count of 8. Repeat a few times to help regulate breathe and heart rate)
Chanting “Om” (Hold the (O) part of the ‘OM’ for 5 seconds then continue into humming the (M) part for the next 10 seconds. Repeat. The longer you repeat, the more you’ll feel a sense of relaxation.)
Gargling water loudly
Washing your face with cold water
Filling the mouth with saliva and submerging your tongue (I had never heard of this one until today, but I just tried it and it definitely helped to quickly activate a relaxing sensation.)
Balancing your gut microbiome! (of course I found a way to sneak some gut health in here… but it’s true… healthy bacteria in the gut help to create a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve!)
The next time you find yourself in a fight or flight mode, or even if you’re just struggling to relax and sleep, try one (or more!) of these and see how it helps you. Share below what’s worked for you!