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Beating the Winter Blues

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We are all familiar with the ‘Winter Blues’ and sometimes a long winter can make us feel sad, grumpy, a little bit low or depressed…and to make matters worse, there are more chances of catching a virus or flu! What can we do to keep fit, healthy and vital this winter? One of the most exciting subjects of research right now is vagus nerve stimulation and there are some fascinating ways this can help us beat the winter blues!

 

First of all, let’s find out more about the Vagus Nerve.

‘Vagus’ means ‘wanderer’ in Latin and, like its name, the vagus nerve wanders round the body. Do you know that there are 12 pairs of cranial nerves that travel from the brain to the rest of the body? The most important and far-reaching is the vagus nerve. It reaches the largest number of organs in our body and transmits information from the brain to the neck, heart, lungs and abdomen. It is responsible for the correct functioning of the digestive tract, respiration, and heart rate. Let’s look at a couple of the most important functions of the vagus nerve:

 

  1. Communication between the brain and the gut.

From my previous blogs, you know that 70% of your immune system is in your gut. The gut is also home to your enteric nervous system, sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’. We are still only beginning to understand how the ‘gut-brain’ axis works, but one theory is that the vagus nerve acts as a neural highway for chemicals make in the gut to get to the brain.

As one of the connectors between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, the vagus nerve sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain (the brain–gut axis) and can be used to treat psychiatric and gastrointestinal disorders.

There is also a clear relationship between mental health and gut health and animal studies show mental disorders are closely linked to compromised gut functions. Gut microbiota influences depressive and anxiety-like behaviour and changing the gut bacteria with specific probiotics can change this behaviour.

Nutritional psychiatry is a new discipline that explores the relationship between what we eat and how we feel. Prof Felice Jacka is a nutritional psychiatrist and head of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Melbourne. You might like to read her book Brain Changer: The Good Mental Health Diet. You might also like to read Grain Brain and Brain Maker by Dr David Perlmutter and Why isn’t my brain working? by Datis Kharrazian.

More than 90 per cent of our body’s serotonin – a key happiness neurotransmitter – is made in the gut. Did you know that diet can also affect this and that the more diverse healthy bacteria there is in your gut, the more likely you are to produce serotonin? This is especially true of tryptophan which is vital for making serotonin and can be found in fish, chicken, turkey, oats and eggs.

 

  1. Decreased inflammation

The vagus nerve sends anti-inflammatory signals to other parts of the body. Cutting edge research, conducted by Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, shows that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. His research on rats (which you can read about here) was successfully reproduced in human studies and shows that electronic impulses that specifically stimulate the vagus nerve dramatically reduced the effects of inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. You might also like to read Tracey’s research on the vagus nerve and the inflammatory reflex.

Vagus nerve stimulation has been approved to treat refractory epilepsy and depression. A small, electrical device (a bit like a pacemaker) is also being used to stimulate the vagus nerve in people with epilepsy and is able to stop or drastically reduce epileptic seizures. Most importantly, the vagus nerve helps relax the body and with less stress there is less inflammation. The vagus nerve communicates with the diaphragm and deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve (and also makes you feel more relaxed). The mental health benefits of the vagus nerve are still being explored!

The vegas nerve is the primary nerve of the parasymptathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and deep breathing prompts it to reduce stress responses, to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Fun fact: Vagal activity is highest and heart rate lowest, when you’re exhaling. So it is your exhale that triggers vagal activity and relaxation. The amazing thing about this is that it allows the body to start to heal itself! You can read more about the vagus nerve from Lucy Norcliffe-Kaufmann, Associate Professor of Neurology at NYU-Langone.

 

How well is your vagus nerve?

Measure heart rate variability, that is, the fluctuation in heart rate between a breath in (when it naturally speeds up) and a breath out (when it naturally slows down). How quickly your heart rate slows after exercise or stress is a good marker that your vagus nerve is working well.

Sometimes a better measure is how you are feeling – feeling calm and balanced is also an indicator of strong vagus nerve function.  Deep, slow breathing, laughing, singing, humming or gargling, and cold-water baths can all improve your vagus nerve function! Though you might like to work your way up to cold-water baths by plunging your face into cold water or finishing your shower with 30 seconds of cold water.

In 2010, researchers found a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. People with higher vagal tone (or function) had better overall heart health, lower levels of inflammation, stronger social bonds, and better-regulated emotions. You can read the study here.

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Vagus Nerve and HeartMath

HeartMath can be invaluable if you are trying to improve the function of your vagus nerve. It is based on self-regulating techniques based on very simple breathing exercises combined with emotional awareness exercises. HeartMath techniques and technology are based on understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to help people bring their physical, mental and emotional systems into balance. A few minutes of daily coherence practice has been shown to reduce and prevent the negative effects of stress, such as overwhelm, fatigue and exhaustion, sleep disruption, anxiety and burnout.

The beauty of it is that it is incredibly simple yet capable of prompting long-lasting shifts in attitudes, mental states and emotional wellbeing. Using it alongside other methods and programs, it results in more energy, less anxiety, clearer thinking, improved cognition and better quality of sleep. Please make an appointment with me if you would like to discuss how HeartMath can help you.

Remember, there are lots of little things we can do to help beat the Winter Blues and every small change can make a big difference! Start with small, sustainable changes and don’t forget one of the simplest things to do is to get moving. A brisk walk can quickly give you a good increase of endorphins and promote deep breathing that stimulates the vagus nerve.

One other thing that could made a difference is Functional Image Training. Last week I met up with a FIT coach to talk about how we might work together.  Functional Image Training helps support behavioural change by increasing motivation.  Research by the University of Plymouth found that overweight people lost an average of five times more weight using FIT  alongside dietary changes compared to talking therapies and dietary changes alone.  If you are considering losing weight or would like to do metabolic balance, perhaps FIT is the missing piece of the jigsaw.

 

With every blessing,

Emma

Emma Maitland-Carew – Registered Nutritional Therapist

Dip.ION, mBANT, CHNC Registered Practitioner,

Metabolic Balance® Coach, HeartMath Coach.

 

 

de Araujo IE, Ferreira JG, Tellez LA, Ren X, Yeckel CW. The gut–brain dopamine axis: a regulatory system for caloric intake. Physiol Behav (2012) 106:394–9.

Pavlov VA, Tracey KJ. The vagus nerve and the inflammatory reflex – linking immunity and metabolism. Nat Rev Endocrinol (2012) 8:743–54.

Rong P, Liu J, Wang L, Liu R, Fang J-L, Zhao J, et al. Effect of transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation on major depressive disorder: a nonrandomized controlled pilot study. J Affect Disord (2016) 195:172–9.

 

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