With the objective of taking a deeper dive into some of the favorite topics of the recent Anxiety Summit: Gut-Brain Axis, today’s blog is about the vagus nerve since Dr. Navaz Habib’s interview, Vagus Nerve Activation to Reduce Anxiety, was voted one of the favorites. I’m focusing on one tool that improves vagus nerve function that we didn’t have time to get into in great detail – and that is how increased sociability helps. It’s all good and well to recommend getting out and hanging out with more people but if you have the social anxiety condition called pyroluria it’s really challenging, hard work and very stressful. Added stress makes pyroluria worse so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Let’s start with the research that supports the connection between the vagus nerve and increased anxiety and mood problems. In the interview with Dr Navaz, we discussed this paper: Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders which states that “vagus nerve stimulation is a promising add-on treatment for treatment-refractory depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and inflammatory bowel disease” and how stimulation of vagal fibers that go from the gut to the brain (afferent fibers) influences neurotransmitter production and “play crucial roles in major psychiatric conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders.” The gut bacteria play a major role too, “partly by affecting the activity of the vagus nerve.”
In our interview we end with very practical ways to activate your vagus nerve
- Deep breathing exercises (mentioned in the above paper, together with yoga and meditation) and cold showers (which makes you breathe harder)
- Gargling and using the gag reflex
- Humming, chanting and singing (I used these approaches for my vagus nerve issue – more here on that)
- Auricular acupuncture (which is also very effective for addictions)
- And finally, social interaction or increased sociability, which I want to cover today
The research on the vagus nerve and being more social
Let’s look at the research on the vagus nerve or vagal tone and being more social. This paper, Upward spirals of the heart: autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness, reports that that vagal tone and connectedness or being more social is a two-way street i.e. it’s reciprocal
- “…increases in connectedness and positive emotions predicted increases in vagal tone” and
- “Adults who possessed higher initial levels of vagal tone increased in connectedness and positive emotions more rapidly than others”
In summary, the more social and happy you are, the healthier your vagus nerve is and a healthier vagus nerve leads to feeling more connected and happy.
This study was done with adults in a community-dwelling setting over 9 weeks: “adults were asked to monitor and report their positive emotions and the degree to which they felt socially connected each day.”
Address pyroluria in those who have social anxiety
Pyroluria, the social anxiety condition, was not part of the study because it’s under-recognized as a factor in anxiety. I’d like to propose that we address pyroluria in those who have social anxiety in order to further improve social connectedness and their vagus nerve function.
Many folks with pyroluria put on a brave face in social settings and even “extrovert” which is extremely stressful. The added stress makes pyroluria worse (zinc and vitamin B6 are dumped in much higher amounts) so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Others, who are not willing to even show up because of their severe social anxiety, are not getting that social interaction and connectedness that is so crucial for improved vagus nerve function and better overall health.
Connecting the dots further we have
- research that reports that vagus nerve stimulation has potential in autism treatment and we know pyroluria and social issues are common in autism
- one of the key nutrients for pyroluria, zinc, plays a role in vagus nerve function
- another key nutrient in pyroluria is vitamin B6 and it plays a role in reducing inflammation
- according to the vagus nerve study above, the vagus nerve “plays important roles in the relationship between the gut, the brain, and inflammation”
- both zinc and vitamin B6 are needed for neurotransmitter production, so increasing both GABA and serotonin will further improve mood and reduce anxiety
- and finally, the more social and happy you are, the healthier your vagus nerve is and a healthier vagus nerve leads to feeling more connected and happy
By addressing the social anxiety called pyroluria with a foundation of zinc and vitamin B6, we can increase sociability and thereby improve vagus nerve function.
Have you got pyroluria and has addressing it nutritionally allowed you to be more sociable? Do you find you have better vagus nerve function when you are more sociable? What other avgus nerve exercises have you found helpful?