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Is The Vagus Nerve All Hype?!

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I don’t know how you could miss it if you have been on planet earth, the last several years have been STRESSFUL! Okay, that might be the world’s biggest understatement. While we can look at recent world events and think those things have been causing our society to feel overwhelmed, the truth is that would be a HUGE mistake! The truth is that many people have been becoming more stressed out and their overall happiness has been declining A LOT even though we have more in our society than ever before.

vagus nerve

There are A LOT of reasons for this (heck, we can see a big dip the year that Facebook introduced the “like” feature on their platform), but that might have to be a separate post because to say “it’s complicated” is again, one of the biggest understatements ever. What people want to do is figure out how they can be happier and I have tried to remind fitness pros for several years now that pretty much every fitness goal is rooted in the same thing, people want to achieve something they believe will relate to a happier life.

This need to find happiness hasn’t been lost on businesses that look for opportunities to make money off people’s desires. It is estimated that in 2019 the self-improvement market was worth $11.6 billion and is projected to grow to $14 billion By 2025. Yea, that is a billion with a BIG “B”. Which tells us that we are getting a lot of stuff thrown at us with a promise of being happier, but it doesn’t seem to be really working (again, a complicated story).

A great example of how a good thing can be over hyped and taken out of context is the vagus nerve. If you have never heard of it (what is wrong with you! JK!!) this is a huge nerve, in fact it is the largest cranial nerve in our body. The reason that it gets A LOT of attention is that it plays a big part in our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that is more relaxed and is opposite of our often far too turned on “flight or fight” system (the sympathetic nervous system).

There are whole long Youtube videos, online courses, and plenty of people asking you to rub or massage this or that to stimulate your vagus nerve so that we can get out of that fight or flight state. It is largely theorized that our society is making us in almost live in this overdriven state that causes a host of health issues.

vagus nerve

Now, stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to help calm down our bodies and is probably a good thing to do. HOWEVER, there are some myths we need to address as well.

-Stimulating the vagus nerve doesn’t solve your problems: Let’s face it, there can be things in our lives that seem daunting to address, whether it is a bad work environment, poor relationships, money issues, and on and on. Stimulating the vagus nerve won’t solve these issues, that really is the wrong way to look at it. The goal in stimulating the vagus nerve is to help calm our bodies and minds (they are connected after all) so that we can make better decisions and gain perspective upon things that could start to make us feel very overwhelmed.

-Stimulating the vagus nerve isn’t really complicated: While you can easily find a supposed 101 ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, the MAJORITY of research recommends diaphragmatic deep breathing as an incredibly effective method. In fact, it is SO effective that it is suggested to be used over even direct electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve because breathing has no side effects and you can see from the research it does just as well if not BETTER than technology that gives that direct electrical stimulation.

vagus nerve

The blue lines are deep breathing group and orange is the electrical stimulation pre and post treatment of both healthy groups and patients. 

Now, this really ruins a lot of people trying to sell you complicated programs, but there is A LOT of research that all shows the incredible effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for stimulating the vagus nerve. Of course too you will hear people nowadays saying that you don’t want to diaphragmatically breath, but the truth is that is the starting point for anyone who wants to learn to help calm our minds and bodies. In fact, when we combine deep breathing like this with movement we can actually also see a positive change on behaviors that are related to our fitness goals.

I like to focus on deep breathing exercises because we can accomplish so much with something that is relatively simple and it is free (good combination right?!). We can calm on our minds and bodies, we can start building better behaviors, and we can even positively impact our mobility and movement abilities (I’ll show below). So, it seems like a no brainer, but how do you employ these ideas for this that want to workout?

My suggestion is to help educate the benefits of learning diaphragmatic breathing in terms that relate to their goals. Secondarily, I love using movement to give people something to visualize and focus upon. Many times, the issue with just sitting and breathing in a fitness setting is that the environment can be very distracting and if people aren’t totally into it they can lose the intent rather quickly. That is why movement can be our great ally as I explain below.

These are some simple strategies that you can use pre-workout, or any time during your day where you are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life. They won’t make your problems go away, but they will make dealing with them a lot easier!  Plus, you will see how they will positively impact our mobility and can be added to our mobility training as we will continue to break down.

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