Our bodies are programmed for self-healing. Given the right environment the body knows exactly what to do, without the necessity for randomised controlled trials! It’s divinely programmed but we also need to do our bit by looking after our environment, internal and external. Our immune system is our best defence to deal with threats and nuisances. Externally we can do things easily and almost instantly, like hygiene, washing, using soap, avoiding touching our face, disinfecting, physically distancing. Internally though, it takes a little longer: building immunity does not happen overnight.
At the moment, with this global pandemic, I see a huge amount of information about boosting immunty through micronutrients (supplements). Yes they can help (with depleted soils our foods are also depleted in nutrients) but surely we first must remove as much “toxicity” from our bodies or else its a bit like using little droplets of magic in a huge ocean of toxic sludge! We need to sort the big stuff…the things that give us huge benefits, best bang for our buck before tweaking and refining. I’ve just done a post on metabolic health and these also affect our immune health . These are the two biggest external factors covered that will be the most effective modifable behaviours:
- FOOD : Real, Natural, minimally processed, as organic as possible. Eating at the right time, eating less throughout the day, eating according to body requirements, eating with intention and gratitude.
- EXERCISE : Focus on regular, consistent, joyful movement. Strengthen the body, mobilise, stretch. Try not to over-exercise and try to be in nature. Gentle exercise is probably a very therapeutic, stress reducing activity at this moment in time.
But whats often missed, or at least not given AS MUCH importance in boosting immunity is our RELAXATION and EMOTIONAL HEALTH.
OUR IMMUNE SYSTEM IS A REFLECTION OF OUR EMOTIONS. So imagine …just now, there will not be a single person that is not feeling some kind of disrupting,negative, conflicting emotions…like grief, sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, uncertainy, worry, irritation etc . So at a time when we need to boost our immunity, we may actually be overlooking one of the MOST important and modifiable.factors. Or at least not giving it as much value as the external, physical stuff.
OUR IMMUNE SYSTEM AND ALL REPLENISHING AND HEALING ACTIVITIES IN THE BODY KICK IN WHEN THE BODY IS IN A STATE OF RELAXATION. It is only in the state of rest that the body mops up free radicals that are created in the stress state. So imagine, at the moment we are dealing with a seriously stressful situation. Huge uncertainty and fear is heavy in the energy all around us which shifts our nervous system into the stress mode (Sympathetic System) which increases inflammation in the body over time and hence compromises the immune system. So scheduling regular relaxation activities will help us to regulate our nervous sytem.
Our nervous system is always scanning our environment (internal and external) to assess threats and answer the question “Am I Safe? ”
We can give it the answer that we are safe by actually voluntarily controlling our nervous system through self-regulation.
The science behind the following activities is the stimulation of the Vagus Nerve, which is part of our Nervous System. This huge,wandering nerve is basically a super highway transmitting information between the body and brain (mind). It connects to all our major internal organs, especially intensely to the gut, the diaphragm and the heart. It also controls much of the facial muscles and expressions and is integral in social connection and interaction. There is a bidirectional flow, with in fact, more information being sent from body to brain (80%) than from brain to body(20%). So it is infact our gut feelings or our hearts signals (intuition) that tells our brain what to do and not so much vice versa as we are led to believe.
The vagus nerve is the most important part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System,
responsible for the relaxation response and essential for keeping your immune system in-check. Your vagal tone can be measured directly by your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). You get apps and Aura rings nowadays to track HRV, though thats not needed at all if you regularly do some of the things I mention on a daily basis.
We MUST be in parasympathetic nervous system dominance for healing and optimal health to be achievable
So, what do we need to do?
First we need to acknowledge that the way modern life was/is set up was naturally pushing us into Sympathetic Dominance. Rushing, pushing, acheiving, proving, competing, judging etc etc.This manifested in huge amounts of chronic disease, physical and mental as well as societies based on individualism, greed and injustice. And now with this pandemic we are literally being forcebly pushed further into the stress state. There may not be a respite from it for some time and yet our healing occurs in REST.
Interestingly we have also been given, by this very same situation that is causing stress, a once in a lifetime opportunity: A PAUSE BUTTON. A chance to rest, release, reset and restart. A chance to actually get off the treadmill and BREATHE and make some changes for the better, for our health, for a better experience of life.
We are being asked to STOP.
To return home
Lets not squander this opportunity trying to hold onto the same routines based on the old paradigms. In order to transform we need to first destroy old beliefs and then allow ourselves to open up to new ways. And to do that we must stop fighting against what is happening and begin to accept it, warts an’ all, trusting in the wisdom of a Higher Power. You can call that higher power God, Allah, The Universe, Source, Mother Earth. Whatever you wish, whatever you have chosen to believe. This transcends religion and infact allows us to see that we are all one, from the same source and are profoundly connected to all things and people.
So, the good news is that the methods to tap into our nervous systems are beautifully simple and free. We dont need to prop up Big Pharma, no need to frantically hunt on amazon for the last packet of vitamin C, no need to be dependant on a brand or product. These gifts are available to us all, rich or poor, black or white and equally effective in each human being.
Sleep is a most complex, multifaceted, mysterious, fascinating phenomenon with many properties that we are yet to discover. But above all, it is so critical to our health, performance, and creativity that we should not take it for granted.
Lack of sleep and sleep quality is directly linked to vagus nerve function and a strong link has been shown between stress and insomnia. Getting good sleeps depends on creating a good rhythm in your body. The natural cycle the bodys systems work to is called te cicadian rhythm, which follows approximately a 24 hour cycle. So what you do during the day (when you eat, creating moments of calm and stillness, exercising, being in a good routine) impacts the quality of sleep you acheive.
Get outside during day, get sunlight, which stimulates serotonin production which then translates into melatonin production at night which makes us feel calm and relaxed.
Sleep is cleansing. Sleep is anti-inflammatory. Sleep is immune boosting. Sleep allows the processing of emotions and thoughts. Changes occur physically and psychologically during sleep that cannot occur during our waking hours.
So sleep, nap in the day, sleep some more, siesta, sleep in,switch off the alarm and allow your body to find its own natural rhythm, allow the kids and teenagers to sleep in.
Enjoy not having to constantly chase your tail trying to catch up on sleep.
Using deep concsious breathing is the quickest and most effective way of voluntarily activating the parasympathetic mode to take us into the relaxed state to allow healing to occur. Using deep belly breaths stretches the diaphragm which is attached to the vagus nerve. By stimulating it we can activate the relaxation response.
Being able to regulate the breath at will has certain physiological effects which translate into huge physical,cognitive and emotional benefits. We can change our breath in many different ways and actually just the very act of bringing attention to the breath, of using our WILL to change our breath has significant benefits on its own
Breath has been shown to increase immunity and has been used successfully as an adjunct to cancer treatment. It also is a valued partner in psychotherapy.
There are literally thousands of breathing techniques from ancient wisdoms of India and China/Far East. Some breath techniques are energising and fast, some are slow and calming. To activate the vagus nerve we need to focus on calming methods.You DO NOT have to so some fancy technique, or more extreme breathwork like WimHoff , though they also have magnificent benefits too. A simple breath awareness method is effective, especially is you have never done breathwork. Whatever the method, we know scientifically (though the ancients already knew this) that 3 elements are the most important for activating a calming response
- Deep Breath: feel the expansion of your belly as you breathe in. Focus od breathing from your middle and breathing outwards ie horizontally. Most people breathe vertically, ie up and down lifting the chest and shoulders excessively.This is a dysfunctional pattern. This is also exacerbated in times of fear and anxiety.
- Slow breath : try and slow to 5-7 breaths per minute but “build down” to this gradually if needs be as it can be uncomfortable when you first start. Breathing in and out for 6 seconds in a slow gentle manner will bring coherance to the body and mind.
- Prolonged Exhale: try and build up to doubling the length of your exhale compared with your inhale. So breathing in for 4 seconds ( or whatever time you feel more comfortable, some like 3 some like 5 seconds) and then exhaling for double , ie 8seconds.
Some examples are
- Belly breathing
- Ujjayi Breath
- Bhramari pranayama: bumble bee breathing or bee breath. Combines sound and frequency with breath to be a very therapeutic form of breath
- Altenate Nostril Breathing
The best thing to do is explore each of these and see which you like. The key is consistent practice, even just 10 minutes a day.
You can play around with a lot of levers with breathwork. Breathholding at the top of the inhale or bottom of the exhale, creating mild air hunger and hormetic stress, adding positive, harmonising thoughts or mantras, adding FEELINGS of compassion and love, heart-centered breathing. All of these have been proven to have profoundly beneficial effects
Breath is also the connection to your very essence, your soul. Through regular breathwork practice you can access deep traumas and beliefs that are impossible to access otherwise. Often guided and regular breathwork can lead to huge releases of pent up emotion from the day but also from childhood, birth trauma and even foetal trauma. Different emotions hold different breathing patterns and we often get stuck in dysfunctional patterns which manifests in pain, tension, tightness in the body as well as depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Bringing awareness to breath and consciously changing its speed or depth is essential to break the pattern and hence the emotion associated with it. WE CANNOT DO THIS WITH THE THINKING MIND ALONE.
Breath is anchoring. It brings us to the present moment. A really nice place to be. Infact, the best place to be
Breath is grounding and balancing.It stabilises and soothes. Its avaiable and important to access for all ages. Children are learning dysfunctional patterns through us adults and the messages society gives us and we are setting them up to repeat our cycles of stress if we dont bring this gift to them.
Being in Nature
I can’t even begin to list the physical and psychological benefits. But taking another angle, I personally feel the therapeutic effect of nature is a deeply spiritual one. Its one of connection to something greater than the self. Connection to the source of existance through nature. The awareness that we are connected through breath, through frequency and through energy to every single living entity. I think thats the profound benefit of being in nature.
It brings every sense alive. And so it brings us to the Present Moment.
- breathe the air
- touch the soil
- hug a tree
- just look at the beauty of a flower
- smell the roses
- feel the sun’s warmth (btw, sun boots immunity!)
- feel the invigorating breeze
- let the rain drop onto your skin
- water is healing, listen to water
- bathe in the forest
- see the colours that nature provides as therapy
- touch the smooth rocks and pebbles
- feel you bare feet on the grass and soak up the Earths energy
I’m not waiting for randomised controlled trials for this. Its intuitive. I KNOW it is therapy. We all do.
Humming, Chanting,Singing . Using Sound.
The vagus nerve passes through by the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibrations of humming is a free and easy way to influence your nervous system states. Simply pick your favorite tune and hum away. You can also chant the OM sound, the vibrations of which resonate beautifully with the nervous system.
Its for the same reason that chanting mantras, dhikr, and singing loudly also activates the relaxation response. You can use different pitches to get different muscles working . Do it anywhere!
Gargling uses the motor component of the vagus nerve too. Keep a glass by the sink and gargle loudly morning and evening. Warm water and a pinch of salt has added benefits.
The gagging reflex has been shown to help patients with anxiety too. Though I’d rather just sing and chant to be fair.
Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways.
Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve
I often take cold showers and go outside in cold temperatures exposing some skin.
Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.
Even just washing your face with ice-cold water, especially after exercise, works a treat.
Meditation and Prayer
Any form of meditation and mindfulness will bring deep relaxation to the body and mind.
You don’t have to sit in a particular position, though having a straight spine is recommended. Just find a totally comfortable position. You can do it lying down, though the temptation to sleep is high! You can do it walking.
Meditation is such a gentle easy practice. Its often overcomplicated and as usual the West has packaged it into a sellable commodity. Its really just about AWARENESS of the Present Moment, whatever that is! And wherever it is!
Be aware of what you are doing, your thoughts, how it feels, how you feel. And accept without judgement that it is how it is. Allow the feelings and thoughts to move through you without resisting…This allows us to transcend and release negative thoughts and emotions.Do it for tiny moments in time at first, just throughout the day, then begin to build up and even bring in structured and longer practices if it suits you.
The true meditator is one that lives life in meditation. Every act, thought and feeling is a meditation.
There are many wonderful you tube videos you can use to help guide you. Spend some time finding ones you like.
If you are blessed enough to have a habit of prayer, you should know that this is extremely toning for the vagus nerve. Prayer transcends religion, although all the great religions and spiritual practices instill many relaxing and beneficial habits into us in the form of daily rituals and social activities. If you do not practice a religion, you can still access this. You just need faith in a Higher Source and connect to that source through intention and breath with feelings of trust and acceptance. This is not often talked about in the medical field. But science and spirituality are intimately linked.
Bringing intention and gratitude and feelings of love and compassion to your prayer and meditation has even more benefits. Those emotions and feelings are nourishing and harmonising, creathing a coherance between heart and mind.
Communal, congregational prayer is a healing practice. It doesnt matter the religion, a focused heart-centered feeling of love, compassion and gratitude to the Creator raises the vibrational energy of not just the individual taking part but the atmosphere around and infact across the globe.
The sense of touch increases the vagal tone.
You can do this yourself…self-massage is often used in the East and called Abhiyanga in Ayuverdic tradition. Massage the face and neck daily, concentrating around the ears and gently around the right side of the neck where the carotid sinus lies.
Foot massage, ie reflexology, stimulates many organs in the body and is deeply relaxing
Indian head massage. Many Asian families will remember that a weekend head massage, sitting at mums feet while watching telly was a regular and much-loved part of life. You dont need training or qualifications in this though if you want you can even just you-tube the basic technique and then gift it to your family. My 20 year old son loves to have his Afro massaged regularly… And I love him sitting at my feet and holding him. Happy memories
One of the most important functions of the vagus nerve is SOCIAL INTERACTION
Smiling, laughing, eye contact, touching, connecting are all essential to reduce the body’s stress response, increase nourishing hormones and hence decrease inflammation in the body. This is why loneliness is a silent killer.
We are blessed with the internet and many ways of connecting digitally. Perhaps at this time phone someone and talk instead of texting. Even better, Facetime/Skype/ Zoom/ whatever so that you can make eye contact. As you walk past another on the street, make eye contact and smile. Smile at the bus driver, even if he/she is grumpy.
If you are totally on your own, think about watching movies that make you smile and laugh. Look at pictures of those you love to induce positve emotions like love, watch a laughter yoga video on you-tube. Again, I say we are truly blessed with the internet, despite all the negative things said about it, the postitives are immense.
Also remember, that the brain can be tricked. It doesnt care if you mean it or not as it can respond to the very act of breathing or smiling or laughing without the actual emotions. Just by smiling, even if you dont feel like it will trigger a relaxing effect on the body. So fake it till you make it.
Also connecting through helping others is a deeply therapeutic activity. Just knowing you are bringing aid or joy to someone has a postive impact on our body and especially if done as a collective, working togther.So big up to all the drivers and carers and volunteers…join them
There are many other things like exercise, acupressure or acupunture, osteopathy and chiropractic, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids produced in fish that enhance relaxation by triggering the vagus nerve. But the ones described above are often overlooked and yet amongst the most effective and are totally accessible to one and all.
I know that many folk will not put as much value on these important factors in increasing the body’s resiliance. But relaxation training is actually resiliance training. At times of high stress it can be difficult to switch to deep relaxation. We certainly cannot do this with the thinking mind. It just doesnt work. By tapping into these natural and simple methods we are allowing ourselves to hold and access a large range of energy (high stress to deep relaxation) within the body and mind.
Hope it helps and gives some food for thought. Every activity is pleasurable so at least it will give some joy
All the best