Perimenopause and menopause symptoms driving you crazy? Then keep reading. There is a new (and potentially very effective) kid on the block when it comes to menopause symptom management. Say hello to vagus nerve stimulation. Not menopausal? Don’t go anywhere, as supporting this one nerve in the body positively impacts overall health and well being for all.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
You’ve heard the saying ‘you’ve got a lot of nerve’ – well, when it comes to the vagus nerve you do as it’s the longest cranial nerve in the body. Its name is derived from the Latin for “wanderer”, which aptly reflects its meandering path from brain stem to pelvic floor, connecting the brain to lots of organs, such as the heart, lungs and gut on the way.
The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, influencing breathing and heart rate, plus digestion, all of which significantly impact our mental and physical well-being.
Nervous System 101
The nervous system is a complex network of specialised cells designed to coordinate and control activities of the body. Two of it’s key divisions are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). These have opposing effects and work together to maintain balance in the body.
The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our “fight or flight” response. It prepares the body for dangerous situations by increasing heart rate, dilating blood vessels, diverting blood flow away from non-essential systems such as the digestive system, and releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This response mobilises energy and focuses us on survival.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” response. It promotes relaxation, conserves energy, and facilitates digestion. In those rare moments when you’re not in mid ‘rushing woman’ mode – that sense of zen and tranquillity is coming from your parasympathetic nervous system (not your glass of red).
In an ideal, and very calm world, the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions work in harmony to maintain physiological equilibrium. We skip through life feeling relaxed and happy until the sabre tooth tiger comes a calling at which point we flick into fight or flight to run and hide behind a bush.
In reality – we rush through life panicking about picking up kids, making dinner, missing a deadline, our excess weight etc etc all in a lovely sympathetic nervous system frenzy. Hint – this is not good for our health.
Stress and Hormone Balance
Unfortunately, the physiological responses that enhance your chances of survival in a dangerous situation have a knock-on effect in many systems of the body when they become chronic. If we just look at the female hormonal system and menopause. They can:
- Impair ovarian function, resulting in anovulation and irregular menstrual cycles
- Elevate core body temperature, contributing to hot flushes and night sweats
- Reduce immune function, increasing susceptibility to infections, intolerances and increasing inflammation
- Disrupt blood sugar regulation, potentially increasing risk of type 2 diabetes. Cravings, weight gain (particularly around the midriff) can be due to blood sugar imbalances
- Predispose to thyroid dysfunction
- Reduce liver detoxification ability
- Accelerate breakdown of collagen and skeletal bones, increasing risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis
- Decrease libido due to elevated cortisol levels inhibiting testosterone production
- Impair cognitive function, leading to brain fog and cognitive issues, mood swings, anxiety, and depression
- Disrupt sleep as cortisol interferes with melatonin production
If that’s not just a list of perimenopause symptoms and a blooming good reason to stop, breathe and attempt to remain calm….I have no idea what is!
The Vagus Nerve and Health
The Vagus Nerve play a huge role in the parasympthetic nervous system. If you want to turn off the stress response and switch to ‘rest and digest’ instead? The best way to do this is by stimulating the vagus nerve as it helps your body switch back and forth between the two. This not only promotes a sense of calm, but it helps us recover faster from stress.
But, your vagus nerve can lose this modulating ability due to things like chronic stress or aging, which can increase risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety.
Don’t panic though – if your vagus nerve function is currently low due to your reliance on cortisol to get you through the day, there’s no need to worry. You can proactively stimulate it into action (am I the only one imagining myself prodding it with a little stick to try and wake it up after it’s near permanent hibernation? I digress!). This, in turn, enables you to better manage emotional and physiological symptoms, increase wellbeing and influence hormone balance during menopause.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
The best part? There are many ways you can support it’s function …easily….and at home! So, if your anxiety is at fever pitch and the hot flushes getting you down, knowing how to support your vagus nerve may just be a game changer in your toolkit of natural remedies for menopause.
Key Activities for Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
Cold and Heat Exposure
I know, I know – you either love this or hate it but it’s a goodie. If you’re a hater – stick with me as the list is long and there are some treats to come.
Hot therapy involves exposing the body to heat through methods like saunas, steam, or using hot water bottles or stones. Cold therapy involves subjecting the body to cold temperatures through techniques such as cold showers, ice baths, or cryotherapy machines.
Hot and cold temperatures can stimulate the vagus nerve through a process known as thermoregulation. The vagus nerve plays a role in maintaining the body’s internal temperature within a narrow range, and it is therefore sensitive to, and stimulated by, changes in temperature.
Many individuals are drawn to heat immersion, while cold water exposure is a little less appealing. Cold showers are the most common form of cold-water immersion, and you can start by turning the water to cold for the final 30 seconds of your shower, gradually increasing the duration over time. To ease you in, you can also begin by immersing your face in ice-cold water.
For more on my dip into cold water immersion head to my blog ‘5 Reasons to Try New Things in Midlife’
Deep and Slow Breathing
Research has demonstrated that engaging in deep and slow breathing activates the vagus nerve. Typically, we tend to take around 10 to 14 breaths per minute. However, consciously reducing your breathing rate to approximately 6 breaths per minute can serve as an excellent technique for stress relief. To achieve this, focus on deep inhalations originating from your diaphragm, allowing your abdomen to expand outward.
MOST important is a prolonged and unhurried exhalation, as this plays a vital role in stimulating the vagus nerve and facilitating a state of relaxation. I’d recommend everyone do this for 2 minutes before every meal – if you’re going to eat those nutrients then you might as well absorb them after all. And this can be really helpful in reducing emotional over-eating also.
The practice of meditation enhances vagal nerve response and fosters positive emotions whilst cultivating a sense of self-compassion and reducing the “fight or flight” response. Break yourself into meditation gently with a 5 minute guided meditation using an app such as Calm. I’m a big fan of sleep meditations and usually pick a guided practice with a specific topic, such as self-love, manifestation or emotional release, depending on my state of mind.
Singing, Humming, Chanting, Gargling and Laughter
Not all at once – as I’m pretty sure that’s dangerous! Your vagus nerve is intricately linked to the muscles in your throat, including the vocal cords. Engaging in activities like singing, humming, chanting, laughing and gargling can effectively activate these muscles and trigger stimulation of the vagus nerve. You can go for the ‘twofer’ and gently hum whilst you do your deep breathing or just belt out your favourite 90s number whilst you’re in the shower each morning…tell your partner/kids it’s essential to your wellbeing!
Interestingly, vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another.
Hugging is lovely – it is also a fast track to stimulating the vagus nerve. When you engage in a hug, your body releases oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” which originates from the vagus nerve. If you’ve no one around to cuddle, no problem – you can hug yourself. Simply cross your arms across your chest, allowing them to reach the top of the opposite arm, and gently rub up and down as if you are seeking warmth.
Scientific studies indicate that massages also have the potential to activate the vagus nerve, specifically, foot massages….so grab a family member or friend and get them on it!!!
Exercise has been demonstrated to stimulate the vagus nerve, which could provide insights into its positive impact on brain health and mental well-being. It is advisable to select a sport or exercise routine that brings you enjoyment, as this will increase the likelihood of maintaining a consistent practice. Perhaps a group sport so you can engage in some celebratory hugging and singing once you’re done.
Glimmers are small moments that spark joy or peace, and help cue the nervous system to feel safe and calm. Engaging with glimmers stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the fight and flight response. They can also activate regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure, promoting the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Example glimmers include feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, the smell of cut grass or freshly brewed coffee/freshly baked bread, seeing a sunset or sunrise, nature sounds, stroking a pet or cuddling a child/partner, a warm drink snuggled on the sofa or being the recipient of an act of kindness. Glimmers are all around us but we have to spot them and appreciate them in order to benefit from their power.
Nutrients that Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Emerging research suggests a potential link between probiotics and the vagus nerve. Studies indicate that certain strains of probiotics may positively influence vagal activity and function. These beneficial bacteria could modulate the gut-brain axis, with the vagus nerve serving as a key communication pathway. The interaction between probiotics and the vagus nerve may impact mood, stress response, inflammation, and other physiological processes. However, further research is needed to fully understand the intricate mechanisms and therapeutic implications of this fascinating connection.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These vital fats that the body cannot synthesise are found in high levels in oily found in fish, some seafood and seeds such as flax and chia. They play a crucial role in maintaining the normal electrical functioning of the brain and nervous system. Their beneficial effects may extend to aiding addiction recovery, repairing a compromised blood-brain barrier, and even reversing cognitive decline. Consuming fish regularly is associated with heightened vagal activity and a prevalence of parasympathetic function.
For more information on important nutrients for menopausal women (including other reasons to pile in the omega 3 fats and probiotics) head to my blog ‘Ten Important Nutrients for Menopause’.
I don’t know about you but a day full of lovely hugs, singing, glimmer spotting and a nice foot massage before my night-time sleep meditation sounds like heaven. And totally doable. It’s also no longer indulgent – it’s just become your lifestyle prescription for menopause symptom management. You’re welcome.
But in all seriousness – wellness can be that simple, nurturing and effective. Sometimes the smallest, and nicest, changes can have the biggest impact, if we stick with them and don’t let them get overtaken by daily grind and mundane tasks. You DO have 2-minute pockets of time in your day – we all do. So, commit to a set number and monitor the results. Maybe it dials down the frequency of those hot flushes or helps stop them in their tracks, perhaps it reduces the anxiety before a stressful event…and who know, with time and practice maybe it makes life a whole lot lovelier, menopause or no menopause.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried vagus nerve stimulation and which your favourite techniques are. What have we missed in this blog?
Don’t forget, if you like what you’ve read and would like more practical information and tips on nutrition, lifestyle and mindset for midlife women then I’d love it if you followed me at motherflushingmidlife at the social links below. And, feel free to spread the word.