What happens in the Vagus, doesn’t stay at the Vagus
May 30, 2018
For a country that prides itself on medicals advancements, we seem to be moving further away from the recipe for true health. I have a go-to question I ask when working with clients. Especially those who struggle with digestion, hunger awareness, satiety (fullness), performance anxiety or the ability to relax. My first question is “do you breathe while doing these things?” I tend to get a look that says “get out of here” but then I start my scientific spiel and they are hooked.
The Gut Instinct
You see you have an amazing built-in radar in your body called the “gut instinct” and there is actual science to support it. In your stomach is a small nerve that has the power to be a fountain of health. The vagus nerve comprises afferent nerves (80%-90%) conveying sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system. Basically making the vagus nerve the motherboard connecting the parasympathetic system. This system contains the: heart, lung, brain/mind and digestive tract. When we think of this related to function the vagus nerve controls: heart rate, gastrointestinal movement, sweating and muscle movements in the mouth. So see you don’t really have butterflies in your stomach but you do have muscles that can contract similar to a butterfly’s wing’s flutter when are nervous.
You are likely wondering how does this translate to impacting my health….
Dr. John Sullivan, author of The Brain Always Wins, shares in his book how believes that we should view the brain and the mind as separate entities. The brain perceives emotional information then acts upon it. This emotional information is the first to develop and allows us to survive and thrive. Like a baby’s conditioned response to crying when hungry or needing to be held.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
The mind and body do connect signaling the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA axis). HPA axis generates hormones, neurotransmitter and neuroendocrine responses such as epinephrine/norepinephrine (heart rate), cortisol (stress), serotonin (calmness) and dopamine (feel good). If the feedback to the brain and body is chronic or acute will depict if you respond by either: fight, flight or freeze.
These are three factors that you have the power to control if YOU fight, flight or freeze:
- We have grown to believe that our thoughts are what generates emotions. However, it is actually the opposite.
- If we can have a more neutral response or a more manageable response, then there is less stress on the body. We have the ability to decipher what to do with that emotion. Example- “I avoid all sugar as it is BAD.” What kind of emotion does BAD typically invoke?
- Sit with an emotion and try to understand it. Perhaps the reaction has nothing to do with the food but a memory of it or a false teaching.
- When you are distracted at work while eating you are taking the stress of your work straight into your meal.
- Eating at restaurants that are chaotic may overstimulate the nerve making it hard to connect “friction” with body signals.
- Is your workplace, home life or school a place of stress? This can impact your ability to relax as well and connect with your body signals.
- Being deplete of energy can cause a friction in the connection of the vagus nerve. This can occur either due to a restriction of fuel or depletion of fuel secondary to exercise.
- Just like any friction, there is a moment of relief where you believe it makes “everything” better. However, the more the friction s over time the more the nerve is overstimulated due to stress.
Now, remember that damn cupcake (insert blog link) and how it made you anxious at the sight of its cute pink frosting and buttercream frosting? Instantly you are starting to feel the tension in between your ribcage, heart rate elevating and your mind racing. Thoughts spinning of should I or should I not?You have activated your vagus nerve that you are in danger. Should a cupcake generate this kind of bodily reaction?
AUTHOR • ATHLETE • NUTRITION THERAPIST
ReBecca McConville, MS, RD, CSSD CEDRD
"The life-long athlete in me wants to make sure that all athletes stay at the top of their game for as long as they choose to be in their sport. This book will keep athletes on track before your season starts, in the grind of the season, at the end of your season—and be ready to go for the next one."