Perhaps the most surprising root cause of chronic health conditions that seem unexplainable in origin is poor vagal tone, a term referencing the health of the little known vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a long cranial nerve extending from the brainstem, through the neck, winding downward and branching out to most of the upper body organs. Technically we all have two vagus nerves (right & left), but common nomenclature is to speak to this collective as “the vagus nerve”. Think of this vagus nerve as a bi-directional highway where signals travel between the brain on one end, and on the other end, the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys, ultimately joining to control digestion, mood, heart rate, the immune system and other bodily processes. Over 80 percent of the vagus nerve’s fibers are sensory, relaying changes about the internal and external environment to the brain. This feedback is critical for the body’s physiological equilibrium also known as homeostasis.
The vagus nerve also functions as the control center of the network of nerves that relaxes the body known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is “automatic”, meaning not under conscious control, and works to slow down and bring calm to the central nervous system and body. A healthy parasympathetic nervous system’s response for the body is restorative, anti-inflammatory and essential for mental and physical wellness. So a high vagal tone reflects the vagus nerve’s ability to innervate the parasympathetic nervous system to rest and repair itself. Rest and repair allows the body to achieve a healthy balance or homeostasis across all bodily processes including our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and a reduction in anxiety, depression, and inflammation.
The opposite of homeostasis is the dysregulation of the central nervous system and can result in mental and physical ailments including brain fog, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, stomach problems, increased bodily inflammation and more. For example stress is a symptom of a dysregulated nervous system, low vagal tone and poor vagus nerve function. Stress is a major risk factor for all chronic health conditions and emerging research is showing that it is also a fundamental driver of many of today’s psychological and physical ailments such as heart diseases, diabetes, obesity, mood disorders, addictions, and more.
Thus vagal tone reflects a person’s vagus nerve health, command of their parasympathetic nervous system, resilience to life’s stressors, and ability to calm their body. Some people have a stronger vagal tone than others, enabling their bodies to calm more quickly after stress. The vagal tone level of vagus nerve health is not only of critical importance to the brain but also to optimal organ functioning.
A high vagal tone indicates an engaged vagus nerve functioning similar to the brake pedal in a car, slowing down our breathing, heart rate, reducing blood pressure, stress, anxiety and making us feel more level headed. Conversely, a low vagal tone indicates the vagus nerve is disengaged, our central nervous system dysregulated and the body is on high alert. This results in the aforementioned opposite of homeostasis with increased anxiety, nervousness, anger, gastrointestinal problems, erratic heart rate or breathing patterns, a compromised immune system, difficulties trying to concentrate and more.
Fortunately the vagal tone can be strengthened by stimulating the vagus nerve thereby boosting neurotransmitter production. The biology behind the vagus nerve’s influence of the parasympathetic nervous system lies in its release of the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine (ACh), which research has shown to reduce inflammation in the body and play a role in memory, cognition, learning, heart rate regulation, blood pressure rate, muscle and gastrointestinal disorders and more.
In the 1880s medical science discovered manual massage stimulation of the vagus nerve, as it runs through the neck region, can suppress electrical nerve signal disruptions within the brain, something we know as ‘seizures’. In more recent times research has produced evidence that vagus nerve stimulation increases the vagal tone. Coupled these findings point to why craniosacral therapy, effective in dropping the nervous system into a deep state of relaxation, is the ideal nonpharmacologic holistic treatment to improve vagal tone.
Craniosacral therapy shifts the central nervous system away from hyperarousal to a relaxed state where tensions can be released and the body’s natural healing abilities take over. Craniosacral therapy can release restrictions in the fascia (the whole-body continuous connective tissue sheath surrounding every single component of the body), of muscles and organs within the body so the vagus nerve can move freely and communicate 80-90% of its sensory information to the brain. Removing impingements or restrictions allows your body to communicate better and vagal tone can be restored and improved. Since fascia is enormously rich with nerve receptors, relaxing the muscle tissue can effectively de-stress the nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve.
Craniosacral therapy for vagus nerve treatment is a gentle, non-invasive manual treatment involving applying light pressure to examine membranes and movement of cerebrospinal fluid in the skull and around the central nervous system including the region of the neck where the vagus nerve branches. Properly targeted therapeutic mobilizations can relieve tensions in the central nervous system, innervate the vagus nerve and elicit a physiological relaxation response. For clarity and distinction, massage is an overarching technique whereas mobilizations are different in intention and implementation. Craniosacral therapy mobilizations involve applying finger-pressure (similar to depressing an avocado checking for ripeness) to manipulate tissues and cerebrospinal fluid within the skull specifically for the treatment of musculoskeletal, lymphatic, or neurological effects.
As a result, craniosacral therapy
- directly invigorates the vagus nerve
- increases vagal tone
- ‘rewires’ the central nervous system shifting it to a state of calm thereby achieving homeostasis across all bodily processes.
The positive effects of craniosacral therapy are cumulative so each treatment further strengthens central nervous system resilience and pathways that encourage the shift to homeostasis to occur naturally. Over time the signs of a healthy vagal tone are noticeable in that:
- You’re experiencing at least one bowel movement daily with no signs of indigestion or constipation.
- You’re generally in a calm, peaceful mood. You don’t experience frequent bouts of frustration, anger, anxiety, or depression.
- You recover from stressful moments and circumstances quickly and easily.
- You’re clear minded and can concentrate with no indication of brain fog, memory lapses.
- You’re not experiencing any chronic health ailments, such as hormone imbalances, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diabetes, or arthritis.
- Bodily pain is at a minimal
Improving vagal tone can be the most substantial way to improve your overall health, particularly if you struggle with anxiety, stress, gastrointestinal issues, or heart disease and aiming for long-term improvements in mood, pain management, wellbeing and resilience. If you are still struggling, and want more help to see if vagal tone or something else may be underlying your symptoms, feel free to reach out to me. I am happy to help you start to feel and function better.