Vagal Tone and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is vital to athletes. It consists of two main branches known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Athletes training hard spend large amounts of time in a sympathetic state. The sympathetic nervous system is considered the fight or flight. When the body is under stress this branch of the nervous system is dominant. The SNS becomes over stimulated by perceived stress, training programs, competitions, etc.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is considered the rest and digest. Athletes rebuild during periods of rest and downtime. Getting into a parasympathetic state quickly and for long periods is extremely beneficial in the recovery process.  The vagus nerve is the major player in controlling the parasympathetic nervous system. Increasing its tone leads to improved stress resilience and returning the body to homeostasis. High vagal tone creates a positive feedback loop with positive emotions, consequently improving mental and physical health.

Here are 5 methods of increasing vagal tone.

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing – deep slow breaths emphasizing the diaphragm rather than shallow apical breathing.
  2. Meditation – Relaxation exercises and deep mindfulness promotes feelings of goodwill and increases vagal tone.
  3. Washing your face with cold water – Acute cold water exposure has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic response.
  4. Humming and speaking – the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords and the vibrations mechanically stimulate it.
  5. Gut microbiome – healthy guy bacteria create positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve.