by Cecilia Parker, Botanist
we talk about it, we want it, but it can sometimes seem elusive. It’s easy to get caught up in the often-hectic pace of life, only to find yourself feeling burned out or too wound up to relax properly. Staying on this hamster wheel of stress has some pretty unwelcome consequences for your overall health, but can be especially hard on your heart. When you’re stuck in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ zone (the sympathetic nervous system) your heart rate stays high, your heart muscle’s flexibility is reduced, and your heart rate variability (an indicator of your body's adaptability to change) is lessened. Read on to explore our list of natural methods targeting heart health that you can do yourself, with the help of your vagus nerve!
To cultivate balance, it’s crucial to know how to strengthen the part of your nervous system (parasympathetic) which governs rest and digestion. One of the easiest ways to do this is by tending to the vagus nerve, which winds its way from your brain to your gut, touching nearly every organ on the way. Learning some simple tools to activate and regulate the vagus can go a long way to keeping your heart resilient to the effects of stress, no matter what shows up.
Research done in the past few decades is encouraging: doing small things regularly can add up to significant benefits to vagal health. The more you strengthen your vagus nerve (aka, improving your vagal tone), the faster you’ll be able to return to a balanced state after stressful or upsetting events, rather than continuing to be hyper-alert and running on adrenaline. This is great news for your hardworking heart!
Small Things Add Up!
When we stimulate the vagus nerve, it helps produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin: improved vagal tone begins a virtuous cycle of better mental and physical health. Cultivate balance with some of these easy practices:
- Splash your face with cold water (adding rosewater to a bowl of water can be extra refreshing)
- Exercise (short walks can have big health benefits)
- Hum or sing
- Deep and slow breathing techniques
- Create a calm environment (a small corner of a room works fine). Play soothing music, burn incense or diffuse essential oils: sit, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Recall memories of feeling safe and happy.
- Massage your feet (using scented oil or herbal balm is a bonus): great before bed!
Smart Moves For Vagus Health
On its way to your belly, the vagus nerve runs through your facial and throat muscles, then connects to your heart and lungs. Gently stretching the muscles of the throat, neck, shoulders, and chest is an effective way to signal to your vagus nerve that ‘all is well.’ Practice these super-simple yoga moves that can achieve this pleasurably:
The name of this pose comes from one of the Grand Dames of yoga, Lilias Folan. You can do it in your work chair, or from any seated position: we’ll add some other neck stretches for good measure.
- Sit up straight, and slowly allow your head to fall straight back, mouth open. Close your mouth, and feel the stretch in your throat. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Bring your head back to center, then slowly bring your right ear towards your right shoulder, feeling the stretch in the side of your neck. Raise your head again, then bring your left ear towards your left shoulder. Repeat 5 times, alternating sides.
Back bend over folded blankets or cushion for a wonderful, gentle heart-opener to foster a sense of calm and safety.
- Fold a small blanket until its thickness is about 6-8 inches, or use a bolster or cushion of similar thickness.
- Place on the floor, and sit right up against the short edge of your prop.
- Place your hands on either side of your prop, and gently ease yourself back until you are resting fully on your blanket or cushion. Open your arms, and let them rest on the floor, away from your body.
- Breathe deeply and slowly, closing your eyes. Feel the gentle stretch of your chest muscles, perhaps imagining a flower opening or a warm light glowing in your heart. Rest.
- Remain here for at least 15 minutes, or as long as you are comfortable.
Sipping warm water (with a squeeze of lemon, perhaps) or herbal tea can aid vagal tone: the esophagus is next to the vagus nerve, and taking a moment to relax helps, too. Here’s a tasty, simple tea of several herbs known to nourish the nervous system and relaxation response. Sip a cup whenever you’re in need of some soothing support.
- 1 tsp Rose petals (ensure they’re not sprayed with chemicals)
- 1 tsp Tulsi (Holy Basil)
- 1 tsp Chamomile
Mix herbs together, then steep 1 heaping tsp of the blend in 8 oz of freshly boiled water for 10-15 minutes. Strain, sweeten if you like, and drink up! Savor the calming help of the herbs.
Looking for more tea recipes? Click here for the recipe to our Delicious Digestive Tea to support the digestive process, ease bloating, and soothe upset stomachs.
Your Everyday Toolkit
There you have it: a pocket guide to supporting your marvelous heart, via the master nerve that rules your stress response. You may not be able to control what life brings, but you can build your toolkit of small, everyday things to help you return to a balanced place, which your heart (and nervous system) will thank you for!
Be Kind To Your Heart By Tending To Your Vagus Nerve
by Cecilia Parker, Botanist