You’ve spent the past several years reducing chronic stress with daily meditation, yoga, changing your career to a low stress one, possibly moving out of the bustling city to a quiet town and getting a weekly massage. You even overhauled your diet, making the move to clean it up and getting rid of inflammatory foods. So, why is your body still showing signs of chronic stress?
This is something I see in my practice and honestly, it’s something I’m still working on myself because chronic stress and its effect on you is multi-faceted and sometimes sticks to you like gum sticks to the bottom of your shoe on a hot summer day.
Speaking of which, summertime is the best time of year to focus on repairing our nervous system due to the lower occurrence of family holidays, taking long weekend trips and finally using that much needed vacation time and miles you’ve spent over a year accumulating!
There are different kinds of chronic stress. Chronic stressors can include emotional stressors as well as physical. The vagus nerve, which connects the brain to nearly every organ in the body, regulates the vast majority of autonomic systems in the body (such as digestion, detoxification, breathing, producing saliva and more) .The vagus nerve flows both ways. From the brain to the organs (which accounts for about 20% of the information flow) and from the organs to the brain (the remaining 80%).
There are two major ways you can be stuck in this chronic stress state without really being aware of it.
Chronic Emotional Stress
There are three parts to your nervous system. The first two, you may have already heard of, include the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) state. We should all be in the parasympathetic nervous system state (PNS) most of the time. There is a third which is part of the more recent polyvagal theory – parasympathetic nervous system’s emergency state. This third system is where you can get stuck.
When your body is perpetually in this third state, your vagal tone can suffer. When you lose vagal tone, it can be harder for your body to toggle between a state of stress and a state of rest.
Your vagus nerve manages the inflammatory system as well. When the vagal nerve isn’t functioning well, chronic inflammation can occur. Chronic inflammation leads to all sorts of health conditions. This can occur in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) state and the emergency state.
Chronic emotional stress can be so low grade, you may not be aware of it. For instance, it can be as simple as sitting in traffic, working at a job you don’t love, worrying about which meal you’ll have for tonight’s dinner. Individually, these stressors are small simple parts and pieces of living each and every day. But added up, they become too much.
Over time, these chronic low grade stressors start to degrade your PNS activity, increasing inflammation, causing digestive problems, lessening detoxification and more.
That said, more intense emotional stressors could trigger getting stuck in an SNS or even an emergency state. Imagine, you’ve gone through some major stressor such as the death of a loved one. While in a mourning state that could last years, your body went into a survival emergency state mode. Even though you’ve had years of therapy, the physical function of your vagal tone may be poor enough that you have difficulty shifting into a PNS state.
Unaddressed Chronic Physical Stressors
It’s important to note that the gut (used to collectively describe everything from the stomach to the colon) sends signals directly to the brain via the vagus nerve. Imagine if you have parasites, candida overgrowth, bacteria overgrowth or mold. Any one of these, when left untreated, can result in changes of signalling along the vagus nerve.
Physical stressors can also include toxic levels of heavy metals  and chemicals . All of which can not only affect your microbiome but which also impact your nervous system.
So even if you’ve addressed all your emotional stressors, or even if you’ve never had any major emotional stressors, your body can be in a state of stress simply because of these pathogens and toxins.
How to Measure Your Vagus Nerve Function
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
One of the easiest ways to determine the strength of your vagal tone is checking your heart rate variability. The lower your HRV, the lower your vagal tone. You can test your HRV with devices such as Oura ring or WOOP which gives you your average HRV while you sleep.
Resting Heart Rate (RHR) and HR Recovery
General speaking, optimum heart rate in a healthy person should be around 50 to 70 bpm. Some will be on the lower end and some on the higher end depending on activity level. When your resting heart rate is above 76, this can be a sign of poor vagal nerve function.
It’s also important to see how quickly your heart rate recovers to its resting rate. Your Oura Ring can show you how quickly you get to a resting heart rate at night, which can indicate your overnight recovery rate. You can also measure this after exercise. You should see about a 12 bpm drop in every minute. When it’s longer than this, it can be an indication of poorer vagal tone.
Slow Bowel Transit Time
The vagus nerve drives peristalsis – the movement of food through your digestive system. To do this test, you can mix one tablespoon of yellow sesame seeds in one cup of water. Be sure to swallow, not chew, the sesame seeds. Check the time. Continue checking the time until you no longer see the seeds in your bowel movements. The Optimum time you should start to see the seeds is 12 hours and 20 hours should be the last of them. If your digestive system is pushing these out earlier or starts much later, your vagal activity is likely decreased.
Ways to Heal from Chronic Stress
I highly recommend, depending on your possible sources of stress, that you choose activities from each of these categories to begin with. Some of these vagus nerve supporting activities can easily be blended into your daily routine. For instance, singing in the shower and then ending your shower with a cold burst of water for one minute before stepping out. Improving your sleep by going to sleep a bit earlier, not eating 3 hours before bedtime and avoiding alcohol before bed.
Vagus Nerve Activation
- Belly breathing
- Optimizing sleep
- Cold exposure (cold shower, jumping into a cold lake or ocean)
- Humming, Chanting and Singing
- Activate the gag reflex
- Gargling to the point of tearing up
- Yoga or Pilates
- Mindfulness practice
- Clean eating
- Daily movement
- Sunlight exposure
Heal Your Microbiome
- Remove toxins and heavy metals
- Remove pathogens (parasites, yeast overgrowth, mold)
- Replace nutrient deficiencies
Other Therapies to Support Recovery
- Chiropractic care
- Visceral manipulation
Chronic stress can be a catalyst to disease in the body. When you’re able to get back into your PNS state, your body will be better able to get back into balance and heal.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.