Feeling ill and not fitting into easily diagnosable conditions is frustrating. One ER doctor said it best when he told me,” I can see you are unwell, but the tests we have done don’t give us a hint of what direction to keep searching…” In the worst moments of my illness, I was so breathless and weak I could barely walk from my bedroom to the living room, yet the doctors listening to my lungs would hear clear breaths. Despite this, my symptoms were very real, and the best way I could describe it was like my body forgot how to breathe on its own.
In these last 4 months, living with long-haul Covid symptoms, I began to realize it felt like my body could no longer regulate—it felt hijacked in its ability to slow the heart rate, digest, or to breathe smoothly and relaxed. Current research on the virus still has not determined if the prolonged symptoms of Covid-19 are because the virus remains in the body for an extended period of time attacking different organs/systems, or if its the body’s own immune system creating havoc on the organs in attempt to fight off this very aggressive virus. Either way, much of what I experienced felt neurologically based, and I discovered many other people describing the same experiences on the Slack Body-Politic Covid-19 Support . I also found discussions on the possibility that some of the effects from the virus could be from damaging the autonomic nervous system, and specifically affecting the vagus nerve.
The autonomic nervous system affects functions we don’t consciously think about, such as digestion, breathing, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure, and is primarily controlled through the vagus nerve. When I described feeling, “Like my body forgot how to breathe on its own,” I could see how this could relate to an impairment of autonomic functioning. On the support group, I found a self-help exercise claiming to ‘reset’ the vagus nerve’. It was a simple exercise where you place your hands behind your head and move your eyes to the three o’clock position and wait until you experience a yawn or a swallow (link to exercise video). I was surprised that I actually found it helpful and this got me wanting to understand the functioning of the vagus nerve further.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts in the brain as a cranial nerve, descends down through the neck, then wanders around through to the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, spleen, and pancreas. It is the main nerve controlling the regulation of all these organs through the parasympathetic nervous system (NS), (the rest and digest branch of the NS, opposite the excitatory, sympathetic NS of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’). For example when the heart rate goes up, it’s the vagus nerve which sends the signal to the heart to slow down.
The vagus nerve is also responsible for controlling the amount of inflammation in your body after an injury or illness. A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal, but an overabundance is linked to many very serious conditions, from sepsis to autoimmune diseases. A study done by a group of researchers in Amsterdam, showed when the vagus nerve is stimulated, inflammation in the body is greatly reduced. Therefore, the chronic inflammation of conditions where the body’s immune system is overactive, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can be reduced when the nerve is stimulated.
In the possible case Covid-19 does damage or affects the vagus nerve in some way, I wanted to learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. I learned the health and proper functioning of the vagus nerve is measured by its vagal tone, and the tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone is associated with better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lowered blood pressure, improved digestion, and reduced migraines (not to mention better mood, less anxiety, and better stress resilience). Below are six techniques found to improve vagal tone.
Six ways to improve the vagal tone the vagus nerve:
1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing—Breathing with good movement in your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs, stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
2. Humming/chanting/singing—Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum (try Bhramari Breathing), or repeat the sound ‘OM’.
3. Washing your face with cold water—The mechanism here is not known, but cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve.
4. Meditation—Both mindfulness meditation, where we give full attention to the present moment, and loving kindness meditation, which invokes a feeling of social connection, have been shown to improve vagal tone.
5. Balancing the gut microbiome—The vagus nerve reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. In this way, the gut microbiome can have an affect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation. Try using probiotics and working on your diet to optimize your gut microbiome (if unsure consult with a dietician or naturopath).
6. Yoga—Its relationship to its slow mindful movements and breathing make it an especially good exercise form to promote vagal tone.
My symptoms and daily functionality are improving, and I felt comfortable practicing these 6 generally safe and simple techniques. So if you are dealing with long-term effects of Covid, or any other chronic auto-immune condition, I hope they can help you too.