What happens in Vagus, Doesn’t stay in Vagus
Rebecca McConville, MS, RD, LD, CSSD
For a country that prides itself on medicals advancements, we seem to be moving further away from the recipe for true health. Often when working with clients 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.
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 of 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: the heart, lung, brain/mind and digestive tract. When we think of this related to body functions the vagus nerve controls: heart rate, gastrointestinal movement, sweating and muscle movements in the mouth - to name a few. So—for example—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 they are nervous.
You are likely wondering how does this translate to impacting my health….
Dr. John Sullivan, author The Brain Always Wins, shares in his book how he 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 is to cry when he/she is hungry or needs to be held.
The mind and body do connect signaling the hypothalamic-pituitary axis that generates hormones and 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 it will depict if you respond by either: fight, flight or freeze.
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These are three factors that you have the power to control of 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 and 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. It's very likely that 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 depleted of energy whether due to the restriction of fuel or depletion of fuel secondary to exercise can cause a friction in the connection of the vagus nerve.
Just like any friction, there is a moment of relief where you believe it makes “everything” better but what happens over time it makes the nerve overstimulated due to stress.
Now, remember that damn cupcake and how it made you anxious at the sight of its cute pink frosting and buttercream frosting? Instantly you are starting to feel a tension in between your ribcage, an elevated heart rate a mind racing with thoughts 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?
Rebecca McConville, MS, RD, LD, CSSD is a Master’s Level Registered Dietitian & a Board Certified Sports Specialist. She specializes in the treatment of anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating & exercise addiction. She also treats the female athlete triad & athlete-associated disordered eating. Becca understands that the drive for peak performance may lead to disordered eating. Her goal is to help you fuel your body, so that you can fuel your life! Visit her website.