Hey, hey, this is Jackie Tann, and welcome to the Bodies Built Better podcast, the show all about human performance. I have the honour of chatting with athletes, coaches, scientists, health experts, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We explore the body’s incredible ability to heal, adapt and evolve so you can crush limitations, reconnect to your body and mind and discover your extraordinary potential. And today on the show, I chat with vagus nerve specialist Jessica Maguire. Jessica has treated patients for over 13 years as a physiotherapist. But now her specialty lies in teaching you how to repair your nervous system via the vagus nerve. In this episode, Jessica explains what the vagus nerve is, why it’s important, and how to identify if you need to be nurturing your vagus nerve. The connection between your brain and nervous system via the vagus nerve is the key to emotional, physical and psychological well being. This is such an important conversation, especially with everything that has happened over the past couple of years, with COVID with lock downs, and what is currently happening in the world today. So if you are feeling affected in any way, or you simply want to learn how to manage your response to stress so you can recover quicker, keep focused, or simply perform at your best. This episode is a must listen. So without further ado, enjoy this episode with Jessica Maguire.
How Jessica Got Started With Studying The Vagus Nerve
Jessica, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Welcome to the bodies built better podcast. It’s so good to have you. We are talking all things the vagus nerve. And whilst I think it’s definitely coming to the forefront of the health and wellness space, I think there’s still so much that we don’t understand. And, and that’s where you come into it. I’m happy to have you here. But before we get into that, I’d really love to know a little bit about your journey, because you are, you are a physiotherapist, but you transitioned into this sort of work. So how did that happen?
Yeah, it’s been, it was an interesting process to come to working mostly with what’s called the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve. Throughout my time at uni, I first started studying, looking a lot at the heart rate, particularly through exercise and things, but also tracking that with ECGs. And then when I when I studied physiotherapy, it really fascinated me, but I found it so complex, looking at how things that with chronic pain, there are changes in the brain, you know, I was thinking, well, if someone’s back hurts, surely that’s at their back, but what the science was showing that No, no, there’s actually changes to the way the brain processes that, there’s sensitivity to the spinal cord. And what I found over 13 years of treating patients was that there were certain groups of people that didn’t get better with the manual therapy techniques that we were taught. And they needed a particular framework that was different to how we look at say, you know, someone is moving house, they bend forward, they hurt their back, we do some manual therapy, they do a few sessions, they get better, off they go. But for some people, the pain never got better. And so this really fascinated me and often I saw them with several factors going on. So they had anxiety, gut disorders, all tied in with that chronic pain. And I just, I guess, really knew there was something else going on underneath that, a system and a framework, but we weren’t sort of taught anything as in terms of understanding that whole blend together. So you know, the modern pain science was showing we can’t separate the body and brain in terms of the somatic body or the musculoskeletal system. But what sort of came to light for me, after changing my study to look specifically at that system around stress regulation, gut disorders, all of that? Was this, how the vagus nerve explained it. And so for me, it was like light bulb moments of, ah, that’s what it is. Because it had been quite frustrating to help people get better and to sort of explain this connection between the brain and body, but then people will ask, well, what does that mean? You know, so it, for me, it was like, coming home to all yes, this makes so much sense.
Yeah, that’s sensational even you just saying that? Like, I mean, as a massage therapist, there’s so many times people will come in and be like, I’ve still got that pain. And, you know, whilst we can offer temporary relief, you know, understanding that there’s something deeper that could be happening and looking at it in a different way, is super important.
What You Need To Know About The Vagus Nerve
Yeah. So well, let’s, let’s get to basics, what is the vagus nerve? And why is it so important?
Sure. It’s rather than one nerve, although that’s what we think, you know, with the name, it’s like vagus nerve, it’s actually a series of connections throughout the body, and it starts off in the brainstem. And then it travels down, there’s branches going to the heart, there’s branches going to the gut. And then there’s branches going from the heart up to the face. So in a way that our whether we’re detecting if something’s safe or dangerous, all of those systems are being activated in different ways. And it connects to almost every organ. And it’s even being shown now that there’s projections up to higher centres in the brain. So, you know, as we look at it as this series of connections, and we start, we can’t really hack our vagus nerve with this one little trick, like we think, but we can certainly improve those feedback loops between the brain and body. And we know from the biomedical model of medicine, which is amazing, you know, we’ve got antibiotics, we’ve got surgery, we’ve got really good at looking at acute things. But it’s not so good at looking at chronic things. So this is where there are people who get, say, a gut disorder and say, for instance, irritable bowel syndrome, that’s now been reclassified as a disorder, because of that interaction between the brain and body because of the way the vagus nerve is functioning. And so if you think about it, people with high levels of stress and anxiety are more likely to have IBS or gut disorder. And the vagus nerve explains that so beautifully, because we can see that it runs from the brainstem coming all the way down to the gut and will change the way the gut motility or movement of food through the gut is happening, which in turn changes our microbiome and then that feeds back up to the brain for neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin. So what we’re seeing is what’s mirrored in the organs will be reflected in the psychological health and vice versa.
How The Vagus Nerve Affects Our Response To Heightened Stress
Wow, like, there’s so much there. So what, based on what you just said, are we, are we, are we, is it the stress that is the cause, like the, of the domino effect, stress, then the gut health? The vagus nerve says, whoa, this is what’s going on. This is now a new pattern or a new map like, is that what’s happening?
You can certainly look at it that way. So we will look at say stress, whether that’s chronic or traumatic stress, as likely to be starting that process off, I guess it’s worth pre-framing this to say stress actually isn’t bad for us if we get to recover from it. So you know, that push outside our comfort zone is good for us if we, if we discharge that stress activation. But if we say that when we have a stress response, so let’s say I’ve got let’s say I’ve got a huge presentation coming up, I will have an increase in a pathway. So we call it our sympathetic nervous system or activate and I’ll feel that mobilising energy come into my body. Now all that is then, is stress, is mobilising energy to deal with the challenge. When that’s over. Oh, well, let’s go back a bit. At, at the same time, is that sympathetic energies coming out, the vagus nerve is actually withdrawing or set. So it’s coming off our heart, that’s letting in energy. So that’s a good thing that gives us focus, passion, drive. And for me, I feel it even talking to you, because I love this topic so much, then what would happen is, after my big presentation, you know, I might be quite scared and have sweaty palms and my voice might shake a bit. But afterwards, my vagus, my bag will break specifically, but the vagus nerve would come in, slow my heart back down, slow my systems back down, and I would feel a discharge of that activation. So you know, you might get like, uh, “I’m glad that’s over.” Or you feel it moving out of your body, you know, the energy shares, you slow down. That’s a really healthy part about inbuilt physiology.
Nationwide Calamities And Their Effect On The Stress Response
But let’s say I have something stressful happen. And it’s, it’s more I saw this in Australia, we had, at the beginning of 2020, there were bushfires, and then COVID hit straightaway after that. So there was no time for people to recover from something that was extremely stressful, then there was another stress. So the sympathetic activation remained on and the vagal brake of the vagus nerve remained off. So what happens then, is, if you imagine like you’re riding a bicycle downhill, and you’d keep a little bit of that brake with your hand on the handlebar brake, I don’t know what that’s called the hand, the front brake, brake. That’s what the vagus nerve, the branch that runs from our brainstem to the heart, is doing at rest. So it’s always just slowing our heart a little bit down to around, you know, 6070 beats per minute, give or take, depending on lots of factors. But what can happen is, as we face more and more stress that gets dampened. So it’s a little bit like we’re riding down here, with the brake released too much. And so then when we have a threat or a challenge, we move into fight or flight, rather than just mobilising that energy that we need. So if I was then going to do that big presentation, I might be overwhelmed to the point where my heart’s racing, I can’t talk, I might even have that experience where I leave my body, you know, you feel like you’re watching yourself out of your body, some people go into a freeze where they just can’t speak at all. And that’s where we start to see when the brake is off, there’s, we’re spending a lot of time in the states of fight, flight or freeze. And that then leads to issues without organ health. So say, with the gut, if I was in that state a lot with the vagal brake off. Well, the way that my nervous system would affect my gut is it would slow down and gut motility, because it would take the blood to my shoulders and arms getting me ready to run away or fight whatever’s going on. So long term projects like digestion, regulation of our sex hormones, they get pushed aside. And it’s like, we’re just in that mode ready to take on whatever’s happening. And when we spend a long time in that state, that’s really where we start to see these issues arising.
Fight, Flight, Freeze: How Do We Get Out Of Those States?
Yeah, so, so tell us more about that when we just can’t get out of that state what it what is happening.
So we can look at it as having a, a window of tolerance, which was coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel, who’s a wonderful neuroscientist, and he says that when we feel calm, or or, or we might feel a little bit nervous, but we’re inside our window. So when we’re inside, we’re flexible, we’re adaptable, our energy is are our thoughts are coherent, you know, like we’re not having thoughts that are like, Oh my god, this is gonna happen, or we’re not sort of so vague, that we can’t have any thoughts are energy stable, and we feel pretty much in the present moment. But as I mentioned before, if the vagal brake’s off, and we move up into that fight or flight at the top, we can go up into that state of hyperarousal so we might feel panicked, hyper vigilant, our our heart races, and, and we can spend long periods of time in that sympathetic state and we might start to see it in our behaviour. So maybe I struggled to sleep, that’s a big one for a lot of people, and then struggle to sit still struggle to relax, to focus to finish work and be done for the day, we might see it in our relationships where maybe we criticise people more, or we start arguments with our partner, or just probably a bit more reactive than what we would normally be. And over time, as that goes on, and on and on, we can end up with chronic pain because you know, we’re always in that state of going to be ready to run or fight the gut disorders, we can say, the other state that we can go into that I’ve mentioned, is like a shutdown or a hypoarousal state, which means a low arousal state. So sometimes after people spend a lot of time in that fight or flight, they’ll drop down into, like, a burnout state, or your stress goes so high, they move into an immobilisation response, which is like a freeze response. And so when people spend long periods of time there, they tend to find themselves procrastinating for long periods of time, they might feel a sense of numbness or cut off pneus from the body, which is really a dampening between that brain body connection we were talking about before. And, and that, that’s, that’s an adaptive response a lot of the time to overwhelming sensations. But that plays a big part in chronic health issues as well, because, as I mentioned, at the start, we made that to a connection from the brain to speak to the body, and back up again.
Illness and Detecting Sensations In The Body
And that particular term we can look at is interoception, which is I-n-t-e-r-o-c-e-p-t-i-o-n, which is basically how we can detect sensations inside our body. And low levels of that have been linked with things like irritable bowel syndrome. It’s been linked with Parkinson’s more recently, eating disorders, it’s been linked with anxiety and depression. So it sounds like, so how much I can detect. The sensations in my body can be linked to chronic illness, like that sounds a little bit left field. But that’s now what so much of the science is showing. And so when we’re in that hyperarousal, where we’re really driven and maybe sensations make us run away with a story that something really bad’s going to happen, you know, like, Oh, I feel this anxiety, oh, my gosh, things are going to fall apart. Or whether we might go, Oh, I feel disappointment, I feel a sense of flatness, things are never going to work out. It’s useless. That is definitely playing out in that communication between our brain and body. And it’s not just implicated in our physical health, or our emotional health, but really how at home we feel inside of our body. And that connects us to a sense of belonging in the world, it connects us to our relationships. So this is why I feel that this work is so important, because the number of aspects that it’s influencing is enormous.
The Vagus Nerve And Organ Health
It’s so is it I’m so overwhelmed at the moment with all of that, because I want to go down all these different paths. But let’s go down like that, I guess more of that interoception. And I mean, organ health for me has always been a really fascinating topic. And, and I think it’s one of those things where we just don’t think about our organs because they’re there just to do a job. And actually, they’ll just do whatever job they can. Whether we know it’s you know, it’s struggling, or it’s not working quite well or not until it’s too late, of course. So I really find that, that organ part really interesting. So can you tell us more about that connection with our organs?
So a lot of the time, there’s information or all of the time, there’s information being relayed from our body, up to our brain. And it’s mostly via the vagus nerve because 80% of its fibres run upwards. So we probably used to think of the, the way we are is being very brain dominant, you know, like the brain is in charge and it’s controlling everything down there. But that’s not necessarily the case. We can’t sort of say, you know, we are just this skull with something in it walking around with the body, you know, we’re what’s happening in the body is equally important. So as these signals come up from the body to the brain, and most of them we’re not aware of, you know, it would be so noisy, if we hurt hurt, we’re aware of a blood pressure changing, or you know, the beats of the heart. But when we look at information that can come in, that feels like a situation from our past, then the brain predicts that this feels just like that time, and generalises. And that’s a lot of the time how we can get triggered. So let’s say we, in the past, we had an experience, you know, like speaking in public, if we gave that and it was really stressful for us. And when we have to do it, again, we’re just so overwhelmed by anxiety. We can’t, we can’t, we can’t cope with that. So the brain is saying, Oh, this is just like this time in our past and guesses and fills in the gaps. So that’s in the lower centres of the brain, the survival brain, particularly the amygdala, but inflammation also is coming up to an area called the insula. And the way that insula brings that information, then into our awareness is that feeling of, Oh, I feel like this in my sense of self. Now, we might just think that that’s the body, you know, like, Oh, I feel this here, I feel this there. But what’s actually being shown is that it’s the way the brain is appraising that information. So our sense of self awareness or being here or recognising that we’re sitting here in this in this point, is yes, information from the organs. But it’s also the way our brain is looking at that based on our past, based on our thoughts about things. I mean, this can tie in body image issues, lots and lots of different facets. So the gut will communicate a lot with the brain through the microbiome, we know that the vagus nerve penetrates the gut, and the health of our microbiome will change how it’s communicating up to the brain. And we can look at this a little bit like the soil that, how, neurotransmitters and hormones grow in. So if we were to say, for serotonin, the levels of serotonin will be influenced by the balance of our microbiome. And that in turn, is influenced by if we think of, say those 80% of fibres carrying signals up to the brain. And the brain is kind of in the dark, right? It doesn’t, it can’t actually see what’s happening. It’s just relying on signals from, from nerves, but also electrical signals, sorry, chemical signals. And then that will change the 20% of the fibres running back down of the vagus nerve, which will, say, change how our gut is functioning. So this ongoing loop of organ to brain brain to organ and the levels of stress that we have will then affect the gut, and then the gut will have that that helps will affect how we cope with stress. So it just keeps going around and around. And we also have the same with our heart. So the way that our heartbeats will send messages to the brain, which then influences how the vagal brake is working. So we’ve got this very interesting, interactive, inter woven relational system between our brain and body that we can’t sort of separate like we once thought of that there were so different, though, that information coming up is affecting our decision making sense of belonging, how we feel, and as I often say, how much we feel a home inside our body as well. So for some people, who are often in those survival states that takes them out of the present moment. And so a lot of the work we do is help people come back to feeling in the present moment and in their body. Yeah, huge.
It’s something that I have experienced myself obviously a lot of people have considering the last two years but yeah, that 2020 when everything just felt like it was falling apart, you know, all those symptoms that you’re mentioning, it’s certainly something I’ve experienced to the point where Yeah, everything felt like it was just shutting down and your body is just saying, Well, it’s time to do something different now because this isn’t sustainable. So stress is, is a big thing. And yeah, it’s got that, that domino effect on everything else is huge.
Biological And Psychological Factors
And you mentioned, you mentioned stress and it being, you know, good for us as well. Can you? Can you break that down a bit? Firstly, before we get into, into it even more?
Yes, absolutely. So that window of tolerance that I was speaking about, we can. It’s dynamic. So our tolerance for it’s not like putting up with stress, it’s tolerance might not even be the right word to use in that framework. But let’s say it’s our ability to stay regulated, when stress arises, we can change that capacity. So things in the past will influence how we are coping with or how we respond to stress today. But also, we can have the level of stress affected by, we call it the biopsychosocial model, which is a very long word, but it basically means biological factors can influence how we cope with psychological factors. So what we believe about it, or what we believe is going to happen. And this can also relate to memories. So things that have happened in our past, if it feels similar. That can also affect how we cope with stress, and then also social factors. So what’s going on with our relationships, what’s going on with our work, all of these facets contribute to how we will respond. And the context is everything. So let’s say we experienced the same thing. You might think, oh, yeah, that was a bit stressful, but it wasn’t so bad. As well, I might have a complete, you know, panic attack over something. So it’s the context and our histories that, that make it all completely different. But what we can look at is that we can build our capacity for regulation by learning ways that let us deal with stress in the present moment, and learn to stop old responses coming in and influencing how we respond today. So the amygdala, which is the part in the survival brain that’s like smoke alarms, and will detect things, a lot of the time our anxiety comes from conditioned things.
An Example Of A Reflexive Response To Stress
So this is an example I’ve told before, but when I was young, I used to really like spiders. Until one day, I must have been about 12 or 13 and ran my fingers through my hair. And this huge, hairy spider was in my hair. Oh, awful, so stressful. I think at the time, my brother teased me and said, “You know, I wonder if it’s laid eggs.” And so it was just this awful thing. And so today, when I see a spider or anything crawly, the first thing that happens is my head gets really itchy. So that’s a conditioned response to stress. Now this can happen, it’s so, so gross. I know I like it. Horrible. Awful. Now that conditioned way of getting an itchy head is, is how my didn’t, like, lower centres in my brain immediately creates this reflexive response. And stress can do that, that will automatically go into certain postures, we will automatically have sensations or ways of responding, whether it’s fight or flight or freeze. And it doesn’t really match what might be happening today. So learning to uncouple that and learning to say, Okay, that was in the past, you know, and we need to communicate with the lower centres of our brain to do that. Because these responses are nothing to do with what we’re thinking about or choosing or the way we’re talking to ourselves. They are as reflexive as knowing how to ride a bike and remember how to do that again. So it’s an implicit memory system, which means we just automatically know how to do it. That’s so huge. And it’s such a great example because I’ve just had a response, I’ve got goosebumps and the heebie jeebies, huge. Like, logically we go, you know, we experience a situation, and we know that it’s not actually that awful or stressful or even happening to us.
Learn more about Jessica’s work at www.jessicamaguire.com and on Instagram @repairing_the_nervous_system. Browse through The Bodies Built Better Podcast archives for more conversations about the human body!