As you get older, a healthy sex life can get more difficult...
Sex plays an important – and often unmentioned – role in relationships.
Couples who have sex at least once a week reported higher levels of happiness, according to a 2015 study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
A good sex life fosters intimacy and triggers lots of feel-good hormones like oxytocin. It helps your heart, lowers blood pressure, and strengthens your immune system. There's even evidence that a healthy sex life correlates with lower rates of prostate cancer.
One crucial part of a healthy sex life is toning your vagus nerve...
On Tuesday, I mentioned that the vagus nerve is a critical part of the parasympathetic nervous system that needs to be active in order for men to get erections. But it's not just men...
A 2004 study out of Rutgers University found that a group of women with complete spinal cord injury at T10 or above – meaning they had no sensation in their lower extremities – were still able to experience the sensation of an orgasm. This is because the vagus nerve bypasses the spinal cord and innervates parts of our genitalia.
If that doesn't give you evolutionary evidence of how important sex is to our lives, I don't know what will.
So start toning your vagus nerve and have a better sex life with these six activities...
Craniosacral massage involves using an extremely light touch to move the fused bones in your skull ever so slightly. In doing so, the fluid in your brain and spine (cerebrospinal fluid) becomes better able to flow, allowing it to nourish the tissues in your body – like the vagus nerve – and remove waste products.
Craniosacral massage can also be used to stretch the soft tissue around your head and neck. This tissue tends to get less flexible as we age or when we experience illness or trauma. By releasing the tension in this soft tissue, we improve the function of our vagus nerve.
Do what I do and book regular massages every couple of weeks. Find a practitioner who is trained in craniosacral massage to fully enjoy the benefits of a toned vagus nerve.
2. Belly Breathing
The vagus nerve attaches directly to your lungs, so it's no wonder that taking deep breaths will stimulate your vagus nerve.
Belly breathing – or diaphragmatic breathing – entails taking slow, deep breaths that cause your belly to rise and fall as you breathe.
Breathing deeply is the key to allowing your body to relax. When we consciously take slow, deep breaths, we stimulate our vagus nerve and let go of stress and tension. It's no surprise that deep breathing is also the main ingredient of most other activities aimed at relaxation:
- Yoga and stretching
Do what I do and practice slow, deep nasal breaths while reading or writing. You may be surprised to realize how shallow your breath often is.
You can also read one of my favorite books, Breath by James Nestor. In it, he explores the power of breath and how it is critical for our optimal health.
Physical activity that is performed at an enjoyable level of intensity – like walking – stimulates your vagus nerve. This is evidenced by improvements in heart rate variability ("HRV"). And as you may remember from Tuesday, the vagus nerve connects directly to your heart.
One study tested 305 kids, aged 6 to 11, with low HRV. After completing a 12-month exercise program consisting of 20 minutes of physical activity 5 days a week, the participants experienced improvements to their HRV and vagus nerve function.
Do what I do and take a 15- to 30-minute walk every day, even if it's just around the neighborhood. If it'll help you build a habit, find a walking buddy and commit to meeting at a certain time. Scheduling this like you would any other appointment will help you prioritize this truly important activity.
And here's a bonus to walking with a buddy... Turns out that hanging out with people who are in a state of emotional balance and self-regulation is a faster way to get yourself more balanced. You can tone your vagus nerve just by socially engaging with a friend and mirroring their positive attitudes.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of vagus-nerve stimulation is the fact that you can do this by thinking or expressing positive emotions.
A 2013 study used loving-kindness meditation as a way for participants to self-generate positive emotion. The researchers found that the positive emotions actually increased vagal tone in the participants.
When we meditate, we sit still and use our thoughts and breath to overcome any "fight or flight" impulses. We are also in a calm state of being awake. As such, our vagus nerve is being toned and instructing our body to run smoothly and our mind to be at peace.
Take my "Birkenstocks on the Ground" research to heart and develop a daily meditation practice. While there are many types of meditation, I particularly enjoy Transcendental Meditation ("TM") and have ever since my college roommate introduced it to me freshman year in 1976.
TM involves focusing on your breath and a soothing mantra that is both succinct and actionable... Something like "I am calm, peaceful, and fulfilled" will do the trick quite nicely.
5. Yoga and Stretching
Yoga involves a range of activities (like breathwork and flexibility) that integrate the mind and the body... just like the vagus nerve, which also integrates the mind and body by acting as a communication superhighway.
Stretching your neck and spine allows more blood to flow into your brain stem, which in turn improves vagus-nerve function.
A simple stretching exercise to activate the vagus nerve – offered by Stanley Rosenberg in his book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve– goes like this:
- Interlace your fingers.
- Put your hands with your interlaced fingers at the base of your head (just above your neck).
- Lie flat on your back with your hands behind your head.
- Look – with just your eyes – as far as you can go to the right.
- Hold your eyes in this position until you feel a sigh, swallow, or yawn come on (about 30 to 60 seconds).
- Move your eyes back to neutral (straight ahead) for a moment.
- Then repeat steps 4 and 5 for your left side.
Opening up your chest and moving the muscles behind your eyes through this stretching exercise tones your vagus nerve and enhances your social engagement.
Do what I do and get your inner yogi on. I cannot stress this enough as an important tool for longevity. Join a class! If you're 55 or older, check out your local senior center for yoga classes and sign up. Or if you prefer to do yoga alone, find a beginner yoga video on YouTube and give it a try.
The cat/cow yoga movements are another great way to start building flexibility in your neck and spine. You can read more about yoga as a way to improve your posture (and therefore your vagus nerve) in my article about How Your Mother Was Right when she told you to stand up straight.
6. Sing, Chant, Hum, and Gargle
The vagus nerve also attaches to the larynx in your throat. This is your voice box. So, it makes sense why doing activities that stimulate your vocal cords and throat – like singing, chanting, humming, and gargling – will simultaneously activate your vagus nerve.
Make sure you really lean into those "ohms" while you're meditating and don't hold back in the car when your favorite tune bumps through the speaker. Your body and mind will love you for toning that vagus nerve.
Ever notice how singing and acting a little silly can turn around your bad mood in no time flat? That's your vagus nerve at work!
Do what my researcher does and try to chant along with the Gyuto monks. Or on Sunday mornings, I chant with Gregorian music. I've heard we can't always pitch-match the high and low registers, but we certainly have a lot of fun trying.
And one final thought... remember that good vagal tone means good parasympathetic tone, which means a better sex life!
Now that you know how vital the vagus nerve is for your mental and physical health, I hope you enjoy building its tone every day. Make this a priority.
And as always, I'd love to hear what you think. Has this information helped you feel more empowered and confident in your role as the gatekeeper of your own health and happiness? Drop us a line at [email protected].
What We're Interneting...
- Forget survival of the fittest... it's kindness that counts.
- Something different: Could cadaver organs save your life? (video)
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 15, 2021