Updated: Aug 5, 2020
Let me be clear. Outwardly, I encourage always practicing kindness, empathy, and sympathy. Inwardly however, physiologically speaking, being sympathetic is strongly unadvisable when you're up against an immune-compromising virus like COVID-19. Let's take a closer look at why.
Your stress level directly impacts your immune system
No matter how great or small a stressor, your body reacts to stress in the same way, by activating your sympathetic nervous system. If you're stressed, your body is in sympathetic mode. Despite what it sounds like, our sympathetic nervous system does not stimulate a sweet, caring, gentle response, it actually jolts your body into self-preserving fight or flight mode. Regardless of whether you're running late for work or running from a bear, your body is physiologically reacting to it as if it's a life or death situation, which ultimately wreaks havoc on your immune system.
Your sympathetic nervous system does not stimulate a sweet, caring, gentle response, it actually jolts your body into a self-preserving fight or flight mode.
In our modern world, there are more stressors than ever, which set off our sympathetic nervous systems and put our bodies under constant duress. After a while, this begins to wear and tear on the pituitary and adrenal glands (ever heard of adrenal fatigue), and the thyroid gland, which weakens your immune response.
Your body is always either in sympathetic mode or conversely, in parasympathetic mode. You can never be in both simultaneously.
Deactivate your sympathetic system
When stress happens that doesn't require life-preserving strength or speed, it's good practice to deactivate the sympathetic system by activating the parasympathetic system (since they cannot run concurrently), which puts your body back into relaxation, rest, and digest mode. If you ever noticed you've been constipated while under stress, it's because your body only digests when you're in parasympathetic, or "rest and digest" mode. Even more reason to destress!
The fastest most effective way to deactivate your sympathetic system is to activate your parasympathetic system. To do this, you'll want to stimulate your vagus nerve, which is the longest and most complex cranial nerve in your body that communicates between your brain and your organs. It’s responsible for the regulation of internal organ function and more specifically to today's topic, it induces your body's parasympathetic rest, digest and healing state to help relax your body after being in fight or flight mode.
What about Vegas?
Unlike Vegas, what happens in your vagus doesn’t stay there. It actually travels throughout your body sending relaxing signals to your organs and ultimately releases an anti-inflammatory response. Stimulation of the vagus nerve has been shown to induce healing and reduce inflammation, depression, anxiety, fatigue, high blood pressure, stress, and brain fog!
How to naturally stimulate your vagus nerve
Probiotics. Keeping the gut and vagus nerve gateway healthy impacts our mental and physical health. A recent study showed how antibiotics can make us aggressive when they upset the microbiome balance in our gut. Probiotics can help keep the gut and vagus nerve signals in a healthy, happy state, according to a report in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). You can find probiotics in fermented foods like sauerkraut, fermented drinks like kombucha, or by taking a high-quality probiotic.
Hum or Om. Ever wonder why classrooms full of yogis are chanting "om"? This is a great practice, as the vibration of the "om" actually stimulate the vagus nerve in the back of your throat.
Gargle. Another home remedy for an under-stimulated vagus nerve is to gargle with water. Similar to humming, gargling stimulates the muscles of the palate which are fired by the vagus nerve.
Sing. Essentially, singing is like initiating a vagal pump sending out relaxing waves. The vagal nerve is connected to the vocal cords and muscles in the back of your throat, so when you use those muscles to sing, you are activating the vagus. Singing has also been found to increase oxytocin, so belt it out like Mariah while you're running, taking a shower, or doing chores around the house!
Laugh. As if you needed another reason to watch a rom-com! Laughing has so many health benefits, but it's nice to know science has supported it as a health-promoting activity. In the same vein as the other vocal activities listed above, laughter activates the vocal cords and muscles in the back of your throat, which activate the vagal nerve.
Check out some other ways to boost your immune system
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Dibué-Adjei M., Brigo F., Yamamoto T., Vonck K., Trinka E. (2019). Vagus nerve stimulation in refractory and super-refractory status epilepticus – a systematic review.Brain Stimul.12 1101–1110. 10.1016/j.brs.2019.05.011
Howland R. H. (2014). Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Current behavioral neuroscience reports, 1(2), 64–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40473-014-0010-5