Breathwork and the various methods of Vagal Tone Enhancement have, over the years I have been in practice, become cornerstones of almost all of the scripts and treatment protocols I design for my patients. Understanding the process of Diaphragmatic Breathing and its incorporation into ones routine creates a solid foundation for Healing in an integrated and Naturally holistic fashion.
Breath Training & Vagal Toning
(pilfered from my lecture slideshow so please forgive all the bullets)
The key to influencing the Autonomic Nervous System to promote Health and Wellbeing
AKA: the Secret to a Healthy, Balanced life
Do you recognise any of the following symptoms?
- Hair loss and baldness
- Insomnia, headaches, irritability, depression, anxiety
- Mouth ulcers and dry mouth
- Back pain, muscle and joint pain
- Metabolic disorders
- Irritable bowel, gastritis, ulcers
- Eczema and psoriasis
- Heart disease and hypertension
- Menstrual disorders, recurrent vaginal infections, impotence and premature ejaculation
Stress: The Common Denominator
- Stress is understood to be the common factor cited in almost all cases where a individual progresses from subclinical (hidden/as yet unnoticed) functional disorder to clinical (“Houston: we have a problem”) disorder and frank disease?
- It is the Epigenetic super-trigger: The factor which, together with behaviour and environment, makes our underlying inherited weaknesses present themselves.
What is the means by which stress impacts on our health?
- Sympathetic branch (SNS) of the Autonomic nervous system dominates the Parasympathetic branch (PNS).
- Cortisol and Adrenalin dominate the bodies various autonomic functions.
- The organism adopts a fight/flight posture.
- This is fine if momentary, periodical, and relevant to a real threat, but….
- Not if it is a permanent state of being…..
- Where we are living in a fantasy world of imagined threat.
- Constant vigilance comes at a high cost to the normal functioning of the various organ systems.
- Sympathetic tone/Posture => effects of adrenalin/cortisol dominance
- Where we have excess sympathetic tone, what can we do?
- Logic would suggest we raise the Parasympathetic tone to promote balance.
- Main hormonal mediator/tool of Parasympathetic function? Parasympathetic Tone = Vagal tone and increased Acetylcholine (ACh)
- The primary source of ACh and the “General” (governing 75% of it!) of the Parasympathetic nervous system is the Vagus Nerve (‘The wandering nerve’)
Vagus Nerve = Cranial Nerve X
- Arises in the medulla oblongata in the brain stem, drops down through the neck in the carotid sheath, to the organs and tissues of the chest and abdomen
- Gives rise to the Auricular nerve, Pharyngeal nerve, various cardiac branches, Pulmonary and Oesophageal branches and Recurrent laryngeal branches
Benefits of Increased Vagal Tone/Acetylcholine release
- Reduced Inflammation (cytokines and TNF-a; mediated by the Spleen)
- Slower and deeper breathing
- Reduced anxiety and distress
- Increased stem cell production
- Improved learning and memory (ACh and neuro-plasticity)
- Improved cardiovascular health (HRV - Heart rate variability)
- Improved Pulmonary function
- Improved lymphatic, venous and arterial circulation.
- Increases the release of hormones vasopressin, oxytocin, prolactin
- Neurogenesis via Brain derived neurotrophic factor
- Benefits digestion and intestinal serotonin production.
- Improved Immune Function
- Improved Insulin function
- Improved energy metabolism
Methods to increase Vagal tone
- Cold Thermogenesis
- Trauma Release Therapy
- Heart Rate Variability Training
- Jaw Adjustments
- Chanting, Singing, playing Wind instruments
- Buteyko Method – breath holding techniques
- Breath Training
Why Breath Training?
- Simple to teach, simple to do
- Honest, Pure therapy
- ". . . diaphragmatic breathing is considered by many to be the simplest and most effective form of controlled respiration in the reduction of excessive stress.“ Dr George S. Everly
- & It has a long History……
- Breath is central to all religious traditions in one way or another, either overtly or in practice (chanting, prayer etc)
- In both the Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine philosophies Breath has a high status – Qi and Prana are entwined with the breath (for example one of the 3 sources of Qi is the Breath)
- It is the first and the last thing we will do in this life.
The How To: Breathing 101
- External respiration under the regulatory control of the Medulla oblongata (source of CN X!)
- Metabolic control: breath rate and depth dependant on both pH of the blood and the CO2/O2 ratio in the blood.
- Behavioural Control: uniquely, humans (and a few other higher mammals) have voluntary control over rate, depth and location of the breath – this is the key to influencing the Autonomic Nervous System
- The breathing method is specific and simple
- We use the primary muscle of respiration; the Diaphragm
Why the Diaphragm?
- Major parasympathetic innervation
- Exposes the greatest surface area of lung tissue to gaseous exchange
- Therefore likely that the breath rate will drop (“metronome” effect). This will serve as one of the indicators to the medulla that the level of vigilance can drop.
- Further benefits – visceral massage, reduced neck and shoulder tension, improved circulation
- In and out through the Nose – there are actually multiple variations on this, particularly in the Yogic traditions
- I prefer to simplify it to promote benefits of nitrous oxide production from the sinuses.
- There is also some resistance to movement of air which improves influence on vagal tone (glottal technique is hard for some initially)
- Outbreath needs to be longer than the inbreath. I usually ask that the out be double the in – again for simplicity and effect.
- Practice as often as possible until it becomes the default breath.
- That is it!
Breath work in Practice
- Acupuncture practice gives me a perfect opportunity to teach the breath technique – while the patient is lying up with needles in place.
- I started using it as core element of my Fertility protocols, as a means of promoting relaxation, reducing adrenal cortex tone and promoting visceral lymphatic circulation.
- Over time, the diaphragmatic breath not only helps promote systemic and adrenal relaxation, it also promotes visceral, lymphatic and vascular circulation generally.
- The value of this should not be underestimated
- A good example is uterine pain, most often caused by blood stagnation or congestion – of course it benefits from improved vagal tone as well
- Exploring the technique, I early on became aware of the work of Dr KP Buteyko and his study of (what he called) Chronic Hyperventilation Disorder and as a result began applying the Breath Work with some modifications to the treatment of Asthma, Chronic Fatigue and Cardiovascular Disease/Hypertension.
- Here the target is the metabolic control receptors in the medulla, and the goal is to reset the accepted partial pressures of CO2:O2 (to raise CO2 and drop O2) in addition to improving vagal tone.
- The Buteyko method involves diaphragmatic breath in addition to various breath holding exercises.
- It is EXTREMELY effective in helping asthma patients reduce their reliance on steroids and anti-inflammatories.
- Recently I have begun addressing patients with Rheumatoid arthritis with these simple techniques. Medical researchers in USA are trying to create targeted treatments using micro electrode modules wrapped around the vagus nerve (or its various branches for targeted action) – at great expense and with risky surgery. And one can just imagine the unintended consequences starting to line up!
- Kind of easier just to breathe right? We will see….
Think about this for a moment or 3:
“Observe your own body. It breathes. You breathe when you are asleep, when you are no longer conscious of your own ideas of self-identity. Who, then, is breathing? The collection of information that you mistakenly think is you is not the main protagonist in this drama called the breath. In fact, you are not breathing; breath is naturally happening to you. You can purposely end your own life, but you cannot purposely keep your own life going. The expression, “My life” is actually an oxymoron, a result of ignorance and mistaken assumption. You don’t posses life; life expresses itself through you. Your body is a flower that life let bloom, a phenomenon created by life.”
― Ilchi Lee: the twelve enlightenments