The Nerve to Your Heart

I find it fascinating that research demonstrates that vagal tone directly correlates with mental and emotional health.  Your vagal tone indicates the overall health and functioning of the resting state of your body.

High vagal tone is associated with greater empathy, less social inhibition, more secure relationships, more adaptive behavior and better life choices.  These results hold true in a wide range of studies and research contexts.  It never ceases to amaze me how intertwined are our physical, emotional and mental lives.

Vagal tone refers to the vagus nerve, which emerges from the most ancient part of the brain stem and is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system which controls “resting and digesting” in the body. The vagus nerves helps control the functioning of the heart, lungs, digestive system, and other systems such as the eyes and adrenal glands. It operates continuously throughout your life. Because it operates passively outside of your active control, doctors have long considered one’s vagal tone to be fixed at birth. Now researchers realize that it changes through time and can be deliberately improved.

Vagal tone cannot be directly measured, but because it controls so many processes there are a number of means to quantify it.  There are 40 published methods for measuring heart rate variability as an indicator of vagal tone. The vagus nerve significantly controls heart rate, and the more toned its operation the slower and more variable the heart rate becomes.  More variation in the heart rate between inhalation (which speeds the heart) and exhalation (which slows the heart) indicates a relaxed and healthy state of being.

Vagal tone is improved through cardiovascular exercise, meditation, stress reduction, nourishing social stimulation, and is influenced by diet.  It keeps being true: if you take care of yourself your life works better.

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