7th October 2018; Dubai, UAE: Addressing mental health and the ways to reduce anxiety and stress ahead of World Mental Health Day, Dr Sweta Adatia Specialist Neurologist at RAK Hospital and RAK Diabetes Center, Dubai, advises to tap into the power of the Vagus Nerve to improve and strengthen one's mental health.
As per the doctor, most diseases start in the mind, moving to organic brain and later follow with the systemic symptoms; the pattern known psycho-neuro-physio-immuno-endocrinology.
“A long and wandering nerve, the vagus nerve is made of both motor and sensory fibers and connects the brain stem to organs and systems, including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and female sex organs, as well as linking the neck, ears and tongue to the brain,” explains Dr Adatia, adding, “A well-toned vagus nerve helps to regulate blood pressure, glucose levels, digestion and automatic responses like breathing and perspiration and is a fundamental part also of a healthy gut. Crucially, it is the power source of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).”
In the brain, the vagus nerve helps mood and controls anxiety and depression. It is largely responsible for the mind-body connection since it goes to all the major organs (except the adrenal and thyroid glands). The nerve influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behaviour
Physical symptoms of stress can include: low energy, headaches, upset stomach including diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea; aches, pains, and tense muscles; chest pain and rapid heartbeat; insomnia; frequent colds and infections; loss of sexual desire and/or ability among others. The emotional signs of stress could be depression or general unhappiness; anxiety and irritability; excessive and uncontrolled anger; feeling overwhelmed; loneliness and isolation; other mental or emotional health problems. Identifying these signs and symptoms are important in the diagnosis of mental issues.
“However, each one of us has the capacity to reduce the effects of stress almost instantly by unlocking the power of the PNS system or the vagus nerve. Also by using some techniques it's possible to stay away from bad effects of stress and feel fresh each day while remaining healthy and free from diseases”, comments Dr Adatia.
What can you do to increase vagal tone and modulation? Experts advise the following:
- Yoga: Yoga increases vagus nerve and parasympathetic system activity in general, improving mental and physical wellbeing.
- Meditation: Meditation is your medication. Start right now by focusing on your breath. If you're familiar with meditation or mindfulness practices, you'll already be aware of the benefits of watching the breath and then controlling it.
- Laughing: Laughter is the best medicine – many studies show the health benefits of laughing as it is capable of stimulating the vagus nerve.
- Fasting: Intermittent fasting and reducing calories both increase high-frequency heart rate variability which is a marker of vagal tone. When you fast, part of the decrease in metabolism is mediated by the vagus nerve.
- Bio-electric Devices: Effectively stimulating vagus nerve is part of a burgeoning field called “bioelectronics” or “electroceuticals” that uses clinically-tested devices to “hack” into the body's nervous system to improve psychological and physical well-being.
“Regular meditation or mindfulness is well-established as one of the most effective ways to self-manage stress. Spending at least 5 minutes a day breathing deeply well enough to utilize your diaphragm and not just your lungs is the best way to keep the stress at bay”, says Dr Adatia.
Observed on 10th October every year the World Mental Health Day is a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. Mental health problems affect around one in four people worldwide in any given year. They range from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.