Vagal Tone

At the Intersection of Chiropractic, Nutrition, and Emotions 


In September 2017, I addressed participants of the Behavioral Health TeleEcho Clinic, a virtual learning community for behavioral health professionals in Hawai`i and the Pacific. The talk, entitled, The Intersection of Emotions, Nutrition, Vagal Tone and Organ Health in Holistic Healing was well received! For those who want a more in depth look as to why I do what I do as a holistic doctor, chiropractor and reiki master, read on!

If the body is so intelligent, why is it not healing itself? What are the factors that are blocking healing from occurring?

Firstly, our body judges a situation and decides whether or not it is stressful. This decision is made based on sensory input and processing, and on stored memories. Our brain’s ability to perceive and interpret is key to mounting a proper response to stimuli. Exposure to any kind of stressor or toxin sets off the same sympathetic fight/flight response of the autonomic nervous system.

The sympathetic fight/flight response causes the body to increase its heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Muscle tension increases, blood vessels constrict and prioritize blood away from the skin and digestive system to the muscles and brain. Digestion slows, the immune system is on high alert and blood platelets become "sticky" to help blood coagulation. The liver releases sugar into the blood for energy. In the meantime, the mind scans for danger, even heightening threats that may not be serious; emotions become magnified - irritability turns to anger, concern turns to anxiety, fatigue turns to depressed mood.

The vagus nerve is the second largest nerve system after the spinal cord. It is the prime mover of the parasympathetic rest/digest response. From the brainstem, it 'wanders' down into the lower abdomen, touching most major organs, especially the digestive organs, along the way. It brings sensory information on the status of your organs back up to the brain for processing. During the stress response, the sympathetic system overrides the parasympathetic. The ability for the body to bounce back and reset after a stressor is mediated by the health of our vagus nerve, or what they call vagal tone.

A body that is free of nerve interference has more power to heal, think, and metabolize. 90% of the stimulation and nutrition to the brain is generated by movement of the spine.
– Dr. Roger Sperry, Nobel Prize winner for brain research


Improving Brain Function

An overload of toxic stressors causes a neurological imbalance, specifically a neuro-muscular reaction – a tightening of paraspinal muscles, which causes subluxation in the vertebral column. This tightening causes us to become cognitively aware of stress and imbalance, which then prompts us to make changes. Chiropractic patients and other people who are in tune to their bodies can sense when these shifts occur, but for the most part, most modern people are not aware. These paraspinal muscles are like the brain’s “eyes” in the spine because these muscles have a lot of movement sensors. However, altered spinal movement in the long term impacts the brain's ability to properly perceive what is happening in the body. This neurological distortion impacts how it perceives all other sensory information.

Not only does adjusting the spine reset these paraspinal muscles, but also induces cortical neuroplastic change, and changes the way the prefrontal cortex processes information. One of the side effects of chiropractic may be improved prefrontal cortex function, which is responsible for behavior, goal directed tasks, decisionmaking, memory and attention, intelligence, processing of pain and emotional response to it, autonomic function, motor control, eye movements and spatial awareness. The adjustment also calms the sympathetic nervous system and decreases muscle tone and pain intensity.

Dr. Candace Pert, PhD, former Chief of Brain Chemistry in Neuroscience at NIH, who coined the term psychoimmunoendocrinology, asserts that the model of chemicals in receptors that we have been taught to embrace by modern psychopharmacology is missing some very key elements. One of the concepts she asserts is that the body is multilingual. The immune, endocrine, and neurochemical systems are all speaking to each other in many cellular languages from chemical to energetic.

Now, as a Reiki master, I can detect energetic imbalances and intertwine the spinal muscle work that I do with energy work as well. My aim is to bring any area that feels energetically stuck, low, or excessive to a state of calm/balance. Often it feels that I am increasing energetic coherence in an area of distress, which then allows the brain to better interpret the healing requirements for that area.

So these two approaches, chiropractic and reiki, treat the myriad effects of stress on the body through balancing the nervous system and energetic flows, and have powerful effects on improving the brain and body’s ability to heal. But this still doesn’t get to root causes. Why is the body creating a defense state?

Nutrition and Inflammation

I definitely see a correlation between pain and an inflammatory diet. Through Nutrition Response Testing and other applied kinesiology approaches, I would tailor patients’ nutrition, advising them to avoid certain foods for a time and to begin decreasing exposure to everyday toxins, like aluminum, mercury, plastics, chlorine, pesticides, etc. I often found that many patients with chronic pain and even depression healed better and quicker particularly when avoiding gluten and sugar and eating healthy nutrient dense foods. And they saw a correlating increase in neck and shoulder tightness, pain, discomfort, mood and energy when they added back the gluten and sugar.

Indeed, a November 2016 study based on data from some 22,000 participants found that 8.2% of controls had depression compared with 3.9% of people with celiac disease and 2.9% of folks who avoid gluten, even after adjustment for various confounding variables (age, sex, race, income, and access to healthcare). In other words, people who avoid gluten less frequently presented with depression compared to controls.

In practice, I found that gluten and sugar (including fruit sugar) are not the only culprits but they are major players. Other main foods include corn, soy, potatoes and tomatoes - staples of the standard American diet. Each person's triggers vary - a customized list supports patients in efficiently implementing an anti-inflammatory diet.

I also see an under diagnosis of thyroid problems which I believe underlies much of the epidemic of chronic neck and shoulder pain, headaches, migraines, depression and fatigue. I consider symptoms and body temperature to be better indicators for thyroid imbalance than the basic blood labs. One basic tip I give patients is that they know they are doing better when they become less and less prone to cold temperatures and feel less prone to neck and shoulder stiffness. Oftentimes that is correlated to the length of time they are able to avoid gluten and other gluten cross-reactive foods as well as the time it takes to rebalance them nutritionally.

When the gut barrier is compromised due to inflammatory foods, the resulting endotoxins are a potent stimulator of the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis, causing prolonged activation. We know that 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are produced in the gut, along with 30 other neurotransmitters. The gut microbiota regulates production of myelin in the prefrontal cortex, a region important for self-control and executive function and also the maintenance of the blood-brain barrier. Leaky gut, dysbiosis, and a compromised blood-brain barrier can easily lead to neuroinflammation and altered behavior.

So avoiding foods that trigger the immune system and cause inflammation by eating clean nutrient dense foods heals leaky gut and improves the ability of the gut to produce neurotransmitters and heal the brain. It likely contributes to maintaining a healthy vagal tone as well!

My patients still get frustrated. They often ask why they are so sensitive, while their friends can eat/drink whatever they want! This is where I’ve found powerful thinking in the realm of psychology. The longer I’ve been in practice working with patients with chronic pain and autoimmunity issues, I’ve learned that our biography very much influences our biology.

Biography Influences Biology

The books, Scared Sick: the Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease, and The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic, contain cutting edge findings that show how chronic fear experienced in infancy and early childhood lies at the root of chronic diseases as well as contributes to emotional and behavioral pathologies. They explain how early fear triggers disease by dysregulating the HPA axis, activating the vagus nerve, and catalyzing epigenetic mechanisms that facilitate the expression of genetic disease.

One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. The latest research shows that a high vagal tone (found by measuring heart rate variability) makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. These folks are also socially and psychologically stronger – better able to concentrate and remember things, happier and less likely to be depressed, more empathetic and more likely to have close friendships. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and other concomitant disease states like diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, epilepsy, chronic fatigue, and PTSD to name a few.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Kevin Tracey has been working on this issue, looking to see how electrically stimulating the vagus nerve could treat people dealing with chronic inflammatory disease. But many are researching natural ways to improve vagal tone.

Christopher Bergland has a great evidence-based series in Psychology Today called “A Vagus Nerve Survival Guide to Combat Fight-or-Flight Urges: 9 vagal maneuvers to optimize heart rate variance and parasympathetic responses.” I recommend you check it out! The short list is here:

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises
  2. Tonic Levels of Daily Physical Activity
  3. Face-to-Face Social Connectedness
  4. Narrative Expressive Journaling
  5. Gutsy Third Person Self-Talk
  6. Sense of Awe to Promote Small Self
  7. Upward Spiral via Loving-Kindness Meditation
  8. Superfluidity and Secular Transcendent Ecstasy
  9. Volunteering and Altruistic Generativity

Heartmath Institute has been investigating the role of thought and emotion in bioresonance, specifically between the lungs, heart, and brain. They have validated gratitude as the single most powerful emotion for optimizing bodily harmony as measured by heart rate variability. This emotional state, when coupled with the power of breath, can send top-down signals to the rest of the body, sending a message of safety.

So now I have an answer for my chronic pain and auto-immune patients! A patient with a sensitive nervous system (due to early/chronic gut imbalance and/or childhood/life trauma) resulting in low vagal tone and a dysregulated HPA axis, would benefit from a regular regimen of approaches that improve brain function, HPA axis regulation and vagal tone. Certainly, chiropractic, reiki, a clean diet and vagal tone optimizing lifestyle changes including mind/body stress reduction and bodywork therapies would help tremendously in resetting an overworked, overstimulated and/or oversensitive nervous system.

The Physiology of Unresolved Trauma

Dr. Paul Epstein, ND and mind-body therapist asks, “Do people have “arthritis,” or do they have repressed grief from childhood? Do people have “irritable bowel syndrome,” or do they have anger and frustration from growing up in an alcoholic home? Do people have “fibromyalgia,” or were they abandoned and neglected as children? Do people have weight issues because of their metabolism, or were they abused sexually? Can autoimmune diseases, migraines, chronic pain, adrenal fatigue, and metabolic syndrome all be seen in light of surviving adverse childhood events? Balancing the immune system and biochemical pathways, though important, may not be addressing the underlying factors which cause many of these chronic ailments. Are corrections we make to functional imbalances truly correcting the cause, or are they perhaps bypassing a larger issue?”

To really get at the root, approaches that release and integrate somatically stored trauma like somatic integration, mindfulness stress based reduction, Emotional Freedom Technique, EMDR, and the techniques I use in practice, NeuroEmotional Technique and Emotional Freedom Technique, in concert with psychotherapy, would greatly benefit a patient of this profile.

NeuroEmotional Technique (NET) practitioners work with the patient to identify and balance unresolved emotional events, combining Chinese medicine concepts correlating emotions to particular organ meridians with use of brain patterns, pathways of speech, kinesiology, breathwork and skin reflex points. It does not require a lot of talking but rather leads the patient to identify the presence of internal stress or conflict and then we address the stress physiology of the psychology to facilitate a resolution.

A Feb 2017 NET research study by Dr. Daniel Monti, psychiatrist and integrative medicine practitioner focused on 23 patients who experienced traumatic stress symptoms that lasted for at least six months as a result of distressing cancer-related events. A select number of patients received NET and the rest were waitlisted to a control group. The treatment group received a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while listening to the self reported story of their distressing memory before and after NET. After receiving 4-5 sessions of NET, the treated patients saw reduced stimulation in a number of brain structures associated with the perception of emotional trauma, including the parahippocampus, which is known to be activated by various types of traumatic stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans and victims of sexual assault.

To normalize the physiology of unresolved trauma is transformational. Rather than chasing stress symptoms after a triggering episode, we release the trigger, freeing more energy in the body to heal other things.

In working closely with this technique, I’ve been coming to appreciate more and more the Chinese medicine correlation between emotions, organ health and nutrition. There are very extensive charts that have been developed around this in Chinese medicine and applied kinesiology, but the basic correlations are:

Stomach – oversympathetic; spleen/pancreas – low self-esteem; large intestine – dogmatically positioned; lung – grief; bladder – paralyzed will; kidney – fear; gall bladder – resentment; liver – anger; small intestine – lost/vulnerable; heart – frightfully overjoyed; thyroid/adrenals – muddled instability; sex organs/pituitary – non-thinking, non-emotive.

Note that each organ is referring not only to the organ itself but the energetic meridian correlated to that organ, which has corresponding vertebral levels and muscles related to it. This is one way to understand how chiropractic, bodywork, acupuncture and nutrition all intersect and interact.

In using this chart, I’ve seen how patients who heal nutritionally, oftentimes report feeling less prone to challenging emotions that they’ve had in the past. But if in emotionally toxic environments or without proper therapeutic support or in the absence of other fundamental lifestyle changes, these emotions can lead them to straying from their nutritional protocols. And vice versa. Patients trying to heal particular emotions may only get so far if they continue to deal with nutritional stress in the organs involved. It’s very much a circular, rather than linear relationship.

Healing is a process that leads in the direction of cure, toward greater health, vitality and balance. Authentic healing is almost always accompanied by change and growth of consciousness. Illness, therefore, is a synchronistic opportunity to embrace change that can lead to greater health and well being. All healing is, in essence, a sacred endeavor.
– Dr. Larry Malerba, Green Medicine


So what is really at the root cause of disease? Until our society fundamentally values the emotional and physical safety of our children, the cultivation and eating of real, clean food, and healing awe and reverence for the land, I would say that body-mind approaches that fundamentally change the brain’s perception of safety, married with nutrition and regular bodywork and lifestyle habits that support increasing vagal tone, are key and powerful interventions to support and empower our patients to transform and evolve. And through these interventions, we will part of the larger shift to create a better society in the coming generations.


Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here. 

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