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19 Ways to Activate your Vagus Nerve

Living a life of stress and constant mental stimulation can lead us down a path of symptoms and medical conditions related to high stress. These people are often dealing with fatigue, food sensitivities, anxiety, poor digestion, brain fog and poor sleep quality. Those who suffer with these symptoms often suffer from lower Vagal Tone, meaning that they have a lower ability of the vagus nerve to be activated and perform its functions. So what is the Vagus Nerve?

The Vagus Nerve is the brain’s method of controlling the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and digest system. It is not the only nerve controlling our ability to decrease stressors, but it is by far the single most important nerve due to its far reaching effects. The word “vagus” means wanderer, as this nerve wanders throughout the body to many important organs and imparts signals from the brain regarding their level of function.

This nerve connects the brain to the gut (intestines and stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, sex organs (in females), neck (pharynx, larynx and esophagus), ears and the tongue. No other nerve in the body has such a broad and far reaching effect as the Vagus Nerve.

The function that it imparts is extensive.

  • In the brain itself, it helps control anxiety and mood.
  • In the gut, it increases stomach acidity, gut flow/motility and other digestive enzyme production.
    • Low stomach acid is a major source of gut-related health conditions so an underactive vagus nerve is correlated to the root cause of many health conditions.
  • In the heart, it controls heart rate variability, heart rate and blood pressure.
  • In the pancreas it controls blood sugar balance and digestive enzymes.
  • In the liver it controls bile production and detoxification through hepatic phase 1 and phase 2 conjugation.
  • In the gall bladder it controls bile release to help break down fats.
  • In the kidneys, it promotes general function including water balance, glucose control and sodium excretion which helps control blood pressure.
  • In the bladder it controls voiding of urine.
  • In the spleen it helps to reduce inflammation.
  • In the sex organs it helps to control fertility and sexual pleasure including orgasms.
  • In the mouth and tongue, it helps to control ability to taste and saliva production through salivary gland control.
  • In the eyes, it activates tear production through the lacrimal glands.

Vagus nerve stimulation has the potential to help those suffering from various health conditions, including but certainly not limited to anxiety disorders, heart disease, some forms of cancer, poor circulation, leaky gut syndrome, alzheimer’s, memory and mood disorders, migraine’s and headaches, fibromyalgia, obesity, tinnitus, addiction, autism and autoimmune conditions.

So how can we stimulate this nerve to ensure that this nerve is functioning optimally? Here are 19 ways you can exercise and stimulate your vagus nerve:

 

1. Cold Showers

Any acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve stimulation. Studies have shown that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases, which is mediated by the vagus nerve. Other options are to dip your face in cold water, drink colder fluids and you can even graduate to using a cryohelmet and cold vest. Cold showers are accessible and very effective.

 

2. Singing or chanting

Singing, humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing and upbeat energetic singing all increase heart rate variability (HRV) in slightly different ways. Singing at the top of your lungs (like you mean it) makes you work the muscles at the back of your throat, which helps activate the vagus nerve. The next time someone catches you singing along to the radio while driving your car, tell them you are just exercising and activating your Vagus nerve.

 

3. Gargling

Gargling with a glass of water each morning will help to contract the muscles in the back of your throat. This in turn helps to activate the Vagus nerve and also stimulates the digestive tract. Keep a glass next to your sink in the washroom as a daily reminder to perform this exercise. You will know you are doing it properly if you gargle to the point of tearing in the eyes (another vagus nerve response). This exercise has been found to be the most readily accessible and easiest to implement in daily life.

 

4. Yoga

Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that improves digestion, blood flow, lung capacity and function. A 12 week yoga intervention showed significantly improved mood and anxiety levels when compared with a control group that performed simple walking exercises. This study showed that levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter associated with mood and anxiety, were increased in those that performed these exercises. Lower mood and higher anxiety is associated with low GABA levels, while an increase in these levels improves mood and decreases anxiety and stress levels. (Reference)

 

5. Meditation

There are two different types of meditation that have been shown to increase vagal tone including Loving-Kindness meditation as well as Guided Mindfulness Meditation. These have been measured by heart rate variability (Reference). It has also been shown that the chanting of “Om” stimulates the vagus nerve.

 

6. Deep Breathing Exercises

Slow and deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve. The baroreceptors, or pressure receptors in your neck and heart detect blood pressure and transmit the signal to your brain. This signal then in turn activates the vagus nerve, to help lower blood pressure and heart rate. This results in a lower sympathetic “fight or flight” response, as well as a higher parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. Slow breathing helps to increase the sensitivity of these receptors, increasing vagal activation.

Here’s an important tip: Breathe slowly, having your belly rise and fall. This is the intended action of your Diaphragm muscle. Your shoulders and Traps should not be moving much at all with each breath as these actions are controlled by secondary respiratory muscles. The more your belly expands and contracts, the deeper you are breathing.

 

7. Laughter

Laughter is the best medicine. This can actually be true in the case of increased vagus nerve activity as laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability in a study comparing a laughter yoga participants (Reference).

Laughter has also been found to be beneficial for cognitive function and protects against heart disease. It increases beta endorphins, nitric oxide levels and benefits the vascular system. It has also been shown that people put in humorous situations show a lower cortisol stress level overall.

 

8. Probiotics

Your gut is connected to your brain, and one of the most clear connections is through the Vagus nerve. Within our gut, we have a population of normal and good bacteria and yeast called the Microbiome. These organisms have a direct effect on our brains as a significant percentage of our neurotransmitters including Serotonin, GABA and Dopamine are produced through actions of these bacteria helping to break down our foods. Often times we have less good bacteria and more bad bacteria within this population leading to poor neurochemistry and decreased vagal tone.

Probiotics are a good option to help promote the good bacteria and other organisms while helping to crowd out the bad bacteria, parasites and yeast.

 

9. Light Exercise

Mild exercise has been shown to stimulate gut flow and gastric motility (peristalsis) which is mediated by the vagus nerve. This in turn means that mild low level exercise can stimulate the vagus nerve (Reference)

 

10. Fasting

Intermittent fasting helps to increase high frequency heart rate variability in animals, which is a marker of vagal tone. When you fast, part of the decrease in metabolism is mediated by the vagus nerve as it detects a decline in blood glucose levels and a decrease of mechanical and chemical stimuli from the gut (Reference).

 

11. Massages

Pressure massages can activate the vagus nerve. These massages are used to help infants to gain weight by stimulating gut function, which is largely mediated by activating the vagus nerve. Foot Massages can also increase vagus nerve activity, heart rate variability and lower your heart rate and blood pressure, all of which decrease risk of heart disease.

 

12. Tai Chi

Tai Chi has been shown to increase heart rate variability in patients suffering from coronary artery disease which again is mediated through vagus nerve activation (Reference).

 

13. Fish Oil – Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fish Oils – EPA and DHA are capable of increasing heart rate variability as well as lowering heart rate.

 

14. Tongue depressors

Tongue depressors stimulate the gag reflex. These function in a similar mechanism to gargling or singing loudly as they exercise the reflexes that are mediated by the vagus nerve.

 

15. Acupuncture

Traditional acupuncture treatment as well as auricular acupuncture (of the ear) stimulate vagus nerve activity. The effects of acupuncture are becoming increasingly well known and you can ask most patients who have had this treatment about the calming effect and restful feelings that they have following an acupuncture treatment. I know many of my patients absolutely love it.

 

16. Serotonin

Serotonin, the mood and happiness neurotransmitter, is capable of activating the vagus nerve through various receptors, which are mediated by 5HT1A, 5-HT2, 5-HT3, 5-HT-4 and possibly 5-HT6 receptors. If you have been found to be deficient in serotonin levels, 5-HTP is a good supplement to help increase them.

 

17. Tensing stomach muscles

Bearing down as if to make a bowel movement requires your body to be in a rest and digest state. This is why many people feel much more relaxed following a bowel movement. Tensing the core muscles by performing abdominal bracing exercises can help to promote a rest and digest state by activating the vagus nerve.

 

18. Eating in a relaxed state

Don’t eat breakfast in a rush, lunches at your desk, or dinner in front of the computer. Having a meal in a stressful environment when you are running late, working or not focussing on the meal can have long-lasting and damaging effects. It is important to eat in a relaxed state, in a calm and peaceful environment. Remember – Choose good food, Chew your food well, and Chill. Choose, Chew, Chill.

 

19. Chewing your food well

The simple act of chewing your food, activates the stomach to release acid, tastebuds to taste the foods well, bile production in the liver and release from the gall bladder, digestive enzyme release from the pancreas and gut motility which are all mediated by the vagus nerve. It is important to sequence your digestion correctly and your body will do this automatically IF you start the process correctly. You must take the time to chew your food to the point that it is soft and mushy in your mouth, before your swallow. Doing this will set the correct sequence of digestion in motion and allow the vagus nerve to perform its functions correctly.

Your state of digestion, rest and recovery are all mediated by the vagus nerve. Following these exercises and habits will not only make you feel better, it will allow you to experience the world in a relaxed, calm and enjoyable state. Happy gargling!!

Overcoming B12 Deficiency

Many people suffer from fatigue, low mood, brain fog and lack of motivation. One of the most common reasons for these symptoms is a deficiency in Vitamin B12. This vitamin is an essential nutrient for humans, meaning that we cannot produce it in our own bodies, thus we are required to take it in through a dietary source. It is estimated that up to 40% of North Americans are deficient in vitamin B12, and it is incredibly common in those people who have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

The most common symptoms of B12 deficiency are fatigue, mental and brain fog, depression, anemia (red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet) and neuropathy. There are some simple tests that your doctor can do to determine if you have a cellular B12 deficiency. Serum B12 is not a good enough marker of B12 function as the effect of B12 occurs in the cells. Ask your doctor for an Intracellular B12 test. If your doctor is unable to perform this test, then Methylmalonic Acid and Homocysteine are other indirect measures of B12. They are not as accurate but these are other options that exist.

Vitamin B12 is most bioavailable (meaning the most usable form of this vitamin is) from dietary meat sources. One of the most important things we need meat for is Vitamin B12. Vegetarian sources of B12 are very rare and not readily available around the world.

A deficiency in vitamin B12 can be caused by any of the following:

Pernicious Anemia

This is an autoimmune condition in which our immune system attacks the cells in our stomach that produce stomach acid and an important protein called Intrinsic Factor (IF). If these cells (called Parietal cells) are being attacked by immune cells, they cannot readily produce Hydrochloric Acid  thus our body cannot separate the vitamin B12 molecule from other dietary molecules. IF is used to transport vitamin B12 across the intestinal cells into the bloodstream but if these cells cannot produce enough IF, then we are unable to absorb the B12, leading to cellular deficiency. This is a very common condition in vegetarians who are not supplementing with good quality B12 supplements.

Autoimmune conditions most commonly begin in the gut through Intestinal Hyperpermeability, or Leaky Gut syndrome.

Leaky Gut Syndrome

There are multiple causes of Intestinal Hyperpermeability, aka Leaky Gut Syndrome. Some of the most common are gluten sensitivity, dairy protein sensitivity, parasitic infection, H. pylori and other small intestinal bacterial infections. These issues produce proteins that break down the walls of our gut lining, thus allowing toxins and other molecules to enter our bloodstream, leading to overactivation of our immune systems. It also leads to the decreased ability to properly absorb vitamin B12 from the gut.

Getting tested to determine your gut health is a great way to determine if you are suffering from this condition, however you can also simply cut out the grain, dairy, processed and high sugar foods from your diet to help improve your gut health.

Poor Gut Microbiome

The good bacteria in our intestinal tract help us to break down foods and absorb important nutrients into our bloodstream. If the population of our gut bacteria is imbalanced (too much bad bacteria, too much or too little good bacteria), then this can lead to improper absorption of important nutrients including Vitamin B12. Your microbiome population is determined by the amount of sugar and probiotic rich foods you eat. It is important to reduce the amount of sugar and increase vegetables to help combat bad bacterial growth.

Heartburn Medication

One of the most common symptoms of gluten sensitivity and digestive issues is heartburn. Prescribed and OTC heartburn medications can cause a reduction in Parietal Cell activity, thus decreasing stomach acid and intrinsic factor levels.

It is far more important to determine the cause of the heartburn rather than simply masking the symptoms with a medication.

Chemotherapy Treatment

One of the most common side-effects of chemotherapy is a vitamin deficiency, specifically of B12 and Folic Acid. Chemotherapeutic medications cause an irritation of gut and stomach cells and can have effects very similar to those listed above. It can be very effective for those undergoing chemotherapy treatment to supplement with higher doses of B12 and Folic Acid to help battle this deficiency.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

This is all good to know, now what steps can you take if you are deficient in Vitamin B12?

  • Eat more meat

The best sources are wild caught fish, free range chicken, lamb and sheep meat. Other good options include chicken liver, beef liver, grass fed beef and some raw dairy products like Kefir.

  • Supplements

The best supplement source of Vitamin B12 is Methylcobalamin, however Cyanocobalamin is another good option. Please speak with your doctor or a functional medicine practitioner before starting a supplement routine. These are also a great option for vegetarians who do not want to deal with B12 deficiency symptoms.

  • Good Quality Probiotics

It is important to have a good microbiome population as it helps you to absorb Vitamin B12 as necessary. Try eating good probiotic foods such as Kefir, cultured vegetables like Sauerkraut and Kimchi, Kombucha, Coconut Kefir (dairy free option), pickles and dark chocolate. A high quality probiotic supplement can also be very effective.

  • Reduce Inflammatory Foods

Cut down on foods that increase gut and cellular inflammation, including processed, packaged and prepared foods, margarine, fried foods, low quality meats, sugars, food additives, synthetic sweeteners, iodized salt, dairy and wheat and other grains.

  • Desiccated Liver Supplement

For those of you who don’t like the taste of liver, supplementing with a desiccated liver supplement is a good option for food sources of liver.

10 Easy Ways to Cut Out Sugar

We all know that sugar is a major negative player in our health, regardless of how specific our knowledge is. It should come as no surprise that high sugar intake has been linked to a vast number of medical conditions including, but certainly not limited to: Diabetes and insulin resistance, some cancers, heart disease, stroke, autoimmune diseases and immune dysregulation, obesity and of course weight gain.

Not all sugars are created equal. In fact, naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruit, honey and maple syrup (unprocessed) are not as bad as processed sugars and high fructose corn syrup, and they also contain important antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Here are some practical tips that you can use to help cut avoidable sugars out of your diet.

  1. Stop Buying Processed Foods

This is the biggest change that you can make in your diet when cutting down on sugar. Here’s an easy rule to remember – if it comes in a box, bag or can, it contains added sugars. It’s not uncommon for a single food item to actually have four to five types of sugar added.

  1. Choose whole, fresh fruit

Dehydrated fruit, juice and our childhood favourite Fruit Roll-ups are all made up of almost pure sugar, and have been stripped of their all important phytochemicals, antioxidants and fiber. Buy whole fruits and have them cut and ready to eat any time you crave a snack or for dessert. Choose berries, cherries, oranges, lemon and lime over denser fruits like apples and bananas.fruit

 

  1. Make Homemade Tomato Sauce

You would be surprised how much sugar goes into a can/bottle of tomato sauce. Next time you are at the grocery store, read the ingredient list on a can of any brand, noting how high sugar is on the list. Its amazing how good tomatoes taste when they simmer in a pot with some fresh herbs and spices. Here is a great recipe for Homemade Tomato Sauce.

  1. Make Your own Salad Dressing

Sugar are very commonly hidden in store bought salad dressings. I find that these store bought dressings actually don’t taste nearly as good as my basic, easy homemade dressings, where I mix up 2-3 ingredients at room temperature:

Choose 1 oil (Extra Virgin Olive, Avocado or Walnut are quite good)

Choose 1 vinegar (Balsamic is my favourite but plain white or cider also work)

Optional ingredients include sea salt, pepper, dried herbs, fresh squeezed lemon juice (just a bit), but my favourite is mustard seeds which gives the dressing a kick.olive vinegar bottles

 

  1. Don’t keep “treats” in the house

It’s as simple as out of sight, out of mind. If it’s not in the house, you can’tpassively snack on it while binging Netflix on a Sunday in your pyjamas. If you don’t buy it, you won’t eat it! In fact, stop calling them “TREATS”… it’s a trick 😉

  1. Cut out Soda

This one is a no brainer. Trade in soda for water with lemon, lime, cucumber or frozen berries. If you still need something bubbly, drink soda water, either plain or with lime or lemon.

  1. Avoid Flavoured Yogurt

Most commercial yogurts contain as much sugar as a candy bar. Don’t eat it! Instead, buy or make your own plain yogurt and add fresh fruit, and maybe some honey if you still need some sweetness.

  1. Read the Ingredients on all sauces in your fridge

You would be surprised to find that many of the sauces located in your refrigerator contain more sugar (and sugars with other names to trick you like high fructose corn syrup) than you expect. It is readily found in barbecue sauce, ketchup, relish, hot sauce, chutneys, jam and jellies, in relatively high quantities.

condiments ketchup ingredients

  1. Give yourself rules about Dessert

Sometimes you give in to temptation, and that is completely understandable. We are all social creatures and eat foods to fit in to the crowd. Its tough to attend a birthday party or holiday dinner where there isn’t cake or pie being served. Two options include setting a rule of only eating these desserts on special occasions, or the three-bite rule – limit yourself to three very mindful bites of dessert and often times you won’t even want any more.

  1. Try Dark Chocolate

This has become a go-to option of mine personally. Choosing a dessert option that has significantly less sugar, but contains the positive benefits of cacao. You probably won’t be able to eat a full bar of dark chocolate, like you can with milk chocolate.

Getting Active

I used to hate the gym. I used to have a negative reaction to lifting up a weight, or even the thought of taking a walk. Getting up the courage to work out was one of the hardest thing to do. When I finally realized that I needed to make a change, it was time to find a way to get active and learn how to use my body to do the things it was built to do.

I always had a preconceived notion about working out and that it involved some special talent that I did not have, or could ever gain. I tried the treadmill, the elliptical, weight lifting machines and even biking. Then, one day, a friend introduced me to the game of Squash and I immediately found my way in! I have now been playing squash for over 2 years, two to three times per week and have even started Crossfit to help increase my strength and weightlifting technique.

Transitioning from a lazy couch potato to someone who actively works out 4 days per week was not easy and required much discipline as well as a strong support system. I also realized that it is not as hard as I was making it out to be. One of my favourite images through my research was the hierarchy pyramid of movement by Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple and The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy.

Primal Pyramid

Step 1: Move Frequently at a Slow Pace

This step involves walking, hiking, cycling or performing easy, slow movements for between 2-5 hours per week – 30 minutes per day of going for a walk outside, riding a bike with a friend or loved one is all you really need.

This is the single most important step in starting to become more active and fit, especially for those people who are just starting out.

Step 2: Lift Heavy Things

Between 1 to 3 times per week, do some heavy lifting. Whether you choose to hit the gym once per week for 10-12 minutes (yes this is possible – see Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week) or simply do some squats, lunges, curls and shoulder presses at home a couple times per week, the important thing is to find a routine that works for you. Body weight exercise (30 Exercises To Do At Home. (Bodyweight Exercises to Lose Fat and Get Healthy)) is also a great option for people that are starting out and don’t want to blow their budget on gym memberships.

Step 3: Sprint

This step requires about 10 minutes of effort per week. Find something that you like to do at maximal effort for a total of 10 minutes per week and make it a routine. This can include running, sprinting or 1 rep max weight lifting for a new Personal Record in a Crossfit Class, this is the toughest but most fun thing to find once you reach this level.

If you are tired of being tired and lazy, and have let that New Year’s resolution pass you by, try getting active with some slow deliberate movements with someone you can be accountable with. Once you start and find the routine that works for you, I promise it will be hard to stop!

Happy Exercising! Get Active and have fun!

Foods to Avoid if you suffer from Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a common diagnostic label given to patients by their physicians. Often times, this diagnosis is made based on the inability of medications to manage the symptoms of this condition. It has been reported in the literature, that the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia is often made incorrectly, as many patients have underlying subclinical conditions that are not apparent on basic blood testing.

Fibromyalgia is generally diagnosed based on symptoms including chronic muscle and joint pain, anxiety, concentration issues, memory problems, depression, moderate to severe fatigue, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, decreased energy, sleep problems and morning stiffness.

A significant proportion of these symptoms occur because many cells in the body cannot handle the physical, chemical and emotional stressors of daily life due to a poor diet, lack of exercise and an emotionally burdened lifestyle. Some common specific causes of these symptoms are listed below.

  1. Food Additives like Aspartame, MSG and Nitrates

Aspartame and MSG are food additives for sweetness and umami flavour found in many different cuisines. Both of these additives are called Excitotoxins which have an excitatory effect on the NMDA pain receptors, causing acute pains to become chronic and more severe. Fibromyalgia symptoms are often exacerbated when patients eat foods containing these additives.

Aspartame is found in more than 6,000 products including diet soda, confections, chewing gum, gelatins, dessert mixtures, yogurt and some pharmaceuticals. It is consumed by over 200 million people around the world according to www.aspartame.org.

MSG is found in many frozen and processed foods, as well as some asian style cuisines.

Nitrates are found commonly in lunch meats like ham, bologna, pastrami and even bacon.

  1. Diet High in Sugar and simple carbohydrates

Cutting down simple carbs like bread, sugar and cake can reduce symptoms of underlying chronic yeast infections, present subclinically, that can often cause Fibromyalgia symptoms. Yeast is a type of fungus that thrives on sugars and is often an underlying cause of this condition. These sugars also result in a spike in blood glucose and the subsequent immediate drop of this level, which exacerbates the fatigue experienced by patients

For overall health and to help fix your gut bacteria, it is important to cut out sugary foods, particularly high fructose corn syrup. Cutting out simple sugars is also incredibly effective to aid in loss of excessive weight – I am living proof of this.

  1. Caffeine including Coffee, Tea and Chocolate

Due to the stimulant effects of caffeine, many sufferers use high-caffeine beverages as a source of energy. The energy boost you get from caffeine is false and can quickly worsen fatigue symptoms. Fatigue symptoms are often much deeper and longer lasting due to the sedative effects of caffeine, which follow the immediate energy boost.

Cutting out caffeine can have amazing positive benefits on energy levels within less than a week, with most patients noticing a difference almost immediately.

  1. Yeast and Gluten

These 2 very different substances are frequently found together, particularly in baked goods like cake, donuts and bread. Yeast in the diet can foster overgrowth of yeast fungus in the body leading to more joint and muscle pain. Gluten on the other hand, has been linked to impaired digestion and many autoimmune conditions which are present subclinically in Fibromyalgia patients. Gluten has been found to break down the tight junctions between cells of the intestine – a condition called Leaky Gut Syndrome – leading to foods and chemical toxins entering the bloodstream when they normally would not.

Many chronic pain and autoimmune disease sufferers will also benefit from incredibly positive changes in their health by simply cutting out gluten from their diet.

  1. Dairy

Dairy products have also been linked to various digestive issues, similar to Gluten. Subclinical dairy intolerance is common, and dark green vegetables are a natural (and better) source of Calcium than milk.

Fyi – Humans are the only mammal that continues to drink and eat milk products beyond age 2 (and its equivalent in the age of other mammals).

  1. Nightshade Vegetables

Some vegetables, referred to as nightshade plants, have been found to trigger flares in arthritis and fibromyalgia symptoms. These vegetables include Tomatoes, chili and bell peppers, potatoes and eggplant. For the most part, these are nutritious vegetables so if they do not trigger symptoms, don’t ban them from your diet.