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It's Vagus Baby!

Updated: Jan 16

Written and medically reviewed by Dr. Brenda, DPT

Did you know that awareness and mindfulness of your breathing patterns can actually change the organ response in your body?! All the things that we “can’t control” - we actually can have some influence over. How?

Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that supplies your internal organs, such as your heart, blood vessels, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, lungs, etc. It controls the involuntary actions that make our body work and causes a response to input from our environment. There are 2 main divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic, and they have opposing actions.

The sympathetic side is our “fight or flight” response. It kicks our butt into gear with a boost of energy (think running from a threat or being in an extremely stressful situation) and causes changes such as increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased stress hormone release, increased breathing rate, and inhibited stomach activity and digestion.

The parasympathetic side is our “rest and digest” response. It slows us back down and dampens the stress response, returning our body to a normal, resting, state. Heart rate and blood pressure lower, breathing rate slows and deepens, stomach and digestive action starts, calming hormones are released, and sleep improves.

So we need a robust and healthy stress response to certain situations, but where do you think we will want our bodies to spend more time? The parasympathetic side!

What’s the easiest and least invasive way to activate our parasympathetic nervous system? BREATHING! Breathing is one of our involuntary organ processes that we have some conscious control over. Mindfully slowing and deepening our breath will stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a complex nerve, but an interesting one. Simply, it connects with all of our major internal organs and turns them on or off in response to stress. It is the power lever in our body. When it is compromised it can cause many issues. When the vagus nerve is operating in a state of high tone, it activates our parasympathetic nervous system. As mentioned above, when we are in a parasympathetic state, blood flow increases to our organs, helping them to function. There are so many positive effects of this, but a few are: improved digestion, feeling calmer, better sleep, less brain fog, balancing our gut, improved bowel function, healing our body, and improving immune response.

James Nestor writes in his book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art”:

“It’s [much more] common, especially in the modern world, to never experience full-blown, life-threatening stress, but to never fully relax either. We’ll spend our days half-asleep and our nights half-awake, lolling in a gray zone of half-anxiety. When we do, the vagus nerve stays half-stimulated. During these times, the organs throughout our bodies won’t be shut down, but will instead be half supported in a state of suspended animation: blood flow will decrease and communication between the organs and he brain will become choppy, ….. our bodies can persist like this for a while; they can keep us alive, but they can’t keep us healthy.”

And for this desired “rest and digest” response, we want to be breathing in a slow, controlled, and full way. Cue the 360 degree breath!

Those of you who have worked with me know how much I believe awareness of breathing is a gateway into improved core and pelvic floor function/mobilization, as well as health in general.

Check out the video HERE to get the visual of the difference between a chest breath, a belly breath, and a full 360 degree breath. As you are trying it, breathe in and out through your nose.

Breathe like this and start to pay attention to what you are feeling. Do you feel expansion in your sides and back? Can you keep your shoulders relaxed and space/length in your spine?

Most of us have heard the concept of breathing down into the belly to relax us and get more movement in our diaphragm vs keeping shallow breaths in the chest, right? So what’s the difference here? This is the next step. The benefits of breathing into this 360 degree way is allowing movement to the front back and sides of your whole ribcage and core canister - it fosters good alignment and posture, mobilizes your mid-spine (aren’t we all tight here?), and it sets up your inner core (including pelvic floor) to work! Belly breathing can be a great starting point for when someone is stuck in a shallow breathing pattern because it gets the diaphragm moving more, but don’t stop there - we need the back and sides to move as well to help optimize function of the pelvic floor.

Expand your inhales to 6-8 seconds. Expand your exhales to 8-10 seconds making sure you don’t lose the length of your spine. Pay attention to how your breath comes in and out of your abdomen and pelvis.

Draw your breath downward with your inhales. Place a hand on your low back - can you feel the expansion into your hand vs just forward into your belly? Can you feel a gentle expansion all the way into your pelvis and pelvic floor?

Then exhale it from the bottom to top. Can you feel the gentle lift of your pelvic floor and use of your deeper abdomen as you fully exhale, without forcing it?

Now, try some variations to see how much control you have. Can you inhale for 6 seconds — hold all the air in for 6 seconds (shoulders relaxed!) — exhale for 6 seconds — hold all the air out for 6 seconds? Can you blow up a balloon keeping this alignment and feeling your inner core, and not bulging down through your pelvic floor? Or do you collapse your ribs and bend your spine to get air out?

Link back to this old blog post about the core breath HERE

Can’t find this breath in your body? Feel restricted or uncoordinated? Want to explore more in your own body? Contact me!


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