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Vagal Tone: The Performance Bio-Hack for Athletes

By Debbie Potts | Nov. 14, 2017, 4:36 p.m. (ET)


Have you ever switched your focus from what you are eating to how you are digesting? Are you really absorbing the nutrients from your performance, recovery or anti-inflammatory foods? I’m not suggesting that what you are eating is not a healthy option for you, as each is bio-individual. The amount of carbohydrates to protein to fat ratios vary. But, I’ve learned about an area that we don’t pay attention to very often, if at all. Are you familiar with the vagus nerve — one of the 12 cranial nerves, which is also termed the “wandering” nerve? The vagus nerve oversees many of the body’s autonomic functions by communicating nerve impulses to almost every organ in your body. Not only is the brain sending messages to the gut via the vagus nerve, it is also sending messages back to the brain (i.e. inflammation) if in the right nervous system. The brain and the gut communicate via the vagus nerve. 

How tone is your vagus nerve?

If you want to improve your fueling strategy in your triathlon training program, on race day and in your recovery, then you may also want to strengthen your vagus nerve. Why you say? Well as my mentor John Tjenos, a nutritional therapy practitioner, says, “we are not what we eat. We are the nutrients that our body absorbs.”

What happens if we don’t completely digest the food we eat? Even if our meals are filled with nutrient-dense, organic whole foods, if we are not able to break down our food to fuel our exercise and help us repair then we are missing an essential part of digestion. It is one element, in what I call “The WHOLESTIC Method” training program. The WHOLESTIC Method is digestion, but all eight elements impact and influence the other; therefore, they are equally important to training the whole you for life and sports! The eight elements of The WHOLESTIC Method are: 

1. Nutrition 
2. Exercise
3. Sleep
4. Stress
5. Movement
6. Digestion/Gut Health
7. Hydration
8. Happiness 

Stress impairs our digestive process. Digestion is a parasympathetic nervous system process (PNS) as we know as the “rest, digest and repair” nervous system. We are to be in the PNS 80 percent of the time and the other 20 percent of the day we are to be in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also known as the “fight or flight” nervous system. Now what percentage of the day do you think you are in PNS versus SNS? What about when you are eating? Resting? Sleeping? We should be in the parasympathetic nervous system when eating but rarely do we sit, relax and focus on eating a meal as they do in most areas of Europe.

If you are struggling with your performance in triathlons and life, then maybe you should dig deeper to find your root cause. Often it isn’t too difficult to locate your red flags and other triggers if you work with a holistic life coach or nutritional therapy practitioner. We all love to live life as a race and forget it is a journey. 

If you are a typical type-A personality, over-doer in life, then you may struggle with taking time out of your weekday for a relaxing meal and unplugging. What is the difference? Eating in the parasympathetic nervous system versus the sympathetic nervous system. Digestion is turned off when you are in the sympathetic nervous system. We are living life as a race leading us to be in the sympathetic nervous system 80 percent of the day instead of 20 percent, causing a domino effect of health problems, therefore creating a weak link in our performance. 

Our vagus nerve needs to be strong in order to help in the digestion process. Remember we get our amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals from the food we digest and break down, which helps build enzymes, hormones, muscles, bones, blood and our gut biome. The vagus nerve is also a detection system, alerting the brain of any inflammation in the body, if we allow the brain to be in right nervous system. 

The parasympathetic nerves come from the cranial nerves and include the “wandering” vagus nerve. The PNS nerves perform the following digestive functions: 

  • Stimulate the activity of the stomach 
  • Inhibit the release of glucose 
  • Stimulate the release of the gallbladder to release bile needed to digest fat
  • Stimulate the activity of the intestines 
  • Trigger peristalsis, which helps prevent constipation 
  • Trigger enzyme production in the pancreas (pancreatic enzymes to break down carbs, protein and fats)
  • Signal if satiated 
  • Signal if hungry 
  • Need for more stomach acid (HCL), enzymes, bile and peristalsis 

In return, the gut sends messages back to the brain via the vagus nerve to inform. The sympathetic nerves do the opposite, including: 

  • Inhibit the activity of the stomach 
  • Stimulate the release of glucose (increasing blood sugar levels) 
  • Inhibit gallbladder function (inhibiting the release of bile for fat digestion) 
  • Inhibit the activity of the intestines 

We need to support our vagus nerve to improve our digestion and gut health if we want to improve performance, since good digestion leads to a healthy gut, which results in reduced inflammation and an improved immune system (70 percent immune system is in the gut!). I am sure we all want to know we are fueling ourselves for optimal performance for training and racing as well as recovery, but how do we know? 

Stop, pause, slow inhales, long exhales and reset. This is what I remind myself and my clients. Take some deep breathes, long exhales, focus and unplug. I have also been trying a technique to strengthen my vagus nerve or rather improve my vagal tone with simple techniques such as gargling, humming, singing, cold showers, meditation, mindful yoga, connecting with loved ones and long slow exhales. Another new energetic medicine technique is using a vagal tone essential oil blend designed to improve digestion, gut health, detoxification and brain health by helping you shift to a parasympathetic state and strengthen the vagus nerve. Also, you can measure your heart rate variability (HRV) to measure your nervous system activity and vagal tone as a higher HRV relates to a stronger vagal tone. 

Our digestion is as important as our diet. To nourish ourselves, we must support our digestion, but also our brain, as the brain communicates to the gut and the gut communicates back to the brain. Anti-inflammation is key to our bodies’ repair, recovery and regeneration, but it doesn’t happen if we are not in the parasympathetic nervous system more often during the day and all night.

If you really want to improve your performance, including in daily life, then I suggest improving your vagal tone for the ultimate bio-hack.

Debbie Potts is a trainer, speaker, acclaimed triathlete, podcast host (The WHOLE Athlete) and an author of “Life is Not a Race.” She has been in the fitness industry for over 25 years and a competitive endurance athlete for 20 years. Along her journey, she has accomplished many goals including being nominated as one of the top 100 best trainers in the U.S. by Men’s Journal in 2004 and 2005 as well as participating in 15 IRONMAN triathlons – five of them were the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. Potts has owned and operated her own fitness studio in Bellevue, Washington, since 2010 to offer an all-in-one fitness studio – now including The WHOLESTIC Method Nutritional Therapy program to transform the WHOLE person from the inside out.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.