Tag Archives: inflammation

The Vagus Nerve: Lose “The Last 5 lbs”

Although I’m currently in weight-gain mode (i.e. pregnancy), I’ve found over the last couple years that my body has slowly shed extra pounds without effort. I recognize this sounds obnoxious but trust me, I’ve spent over a decade exercising harder than the average person and putting my body through the gauntlet, so it’s not like I haven’t put in effort for weight loss. But ironically, my body was most willing to let go of those “last 5 pounds” when I stopped working out as much. When I put rest and rejuvenation for my whole system as top priority.

Over the last two years, I’ve slept like I’m a teenager again (minus snoozing until noon). I’ve eaten more intuitively and joyfully, and listened to my body each day for whether I’m in a “tackle-and-conquer-the-world” or “sit-back-and-accept-my-low-energy” kind of mood. I embrace both sides of myself equally and without judgement. This is a new thing for me. Although I’ve always known that stress reduction is positive for weight loss – and coach my clients accordingly – I hadn’t truly experienced this firsthand.

Before getting pregnant again I actually told my husband that it felt like my body wanted to let go of even more weight – but that I was going to work against it to keep my hormones level for the TTC process. It was so fascinating to me; to feel that my body was relinquishing fat stores, no longer in survival mode and depending on them for emergency reserves. It made me wonder…what exactly is the root of this change? Yes, my change in attitude and action, but what physical part of myself is aiding this whole-body physiological response? And how do I communicate about this “source” to others so that they can consider the implications in their own lives?

The answer lies at the root of the parasympathetic nervous system: The Vagus Nerve.

The vagus nerve is responsible for the parasympathetic control of your heart, lungs and digestive system, and is the longest autonomic nerve in the body. This means that the nerve is operating and acting on your body’s systems without your conscious thought, controlling the relaxation responses that calm your heart rate and make you feel like you can take a deep breath. It also helps keep digestive woes like bloating, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome at bay.

We often hear the terms “fight-or-flight” and “rest-and-digest.” The vagus nerve controls the latter, but its impact on our minds and bodies is much more complex and powerful than this simple statement. When we have good “vagal tone” our bodies are operating from a place of better wellness. When we are chronically stressed, our vagus nerve basically gets shut down. Think of it like the nerve is asleep. Not doing its job.

If the vagus nerve is less responsive this is a big problem and is linked with higher levels of inflammation, heart attacks, strokes, loneliness and depression, and more. You see, vagal nerve stimulation and responsiveness triggers the release of a substance called acetylcholine. (Fun fact – the first neurotransmitter ever discovered.) Acetylcholine acts like a tranquilizer for the body and has a major impact on inflammatory responses. Researchers have even found that implanted devices that stimulate the vagus nerve help people with inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis!

Numerous studies have also shown that “people with higher vagus nerve activity have lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and lower levels of TNF-alpha, the inflammatory immune marker. Studies also show that the vagus nerve regulates inflammation throughout the body, including inflammation associated with obesity.”

We clearly see through all of this evidence that the vagus nerve has a big impact on our bodies and lives…so how do we stimulate it? How do we “keep it awake?” How do we ensure that we’re not chronically stressed and suppressing the benefits this nerve has for our organs, waistline, internal health, and mood?

Methods for Improving “Vagal Tone” and Keeping the Vagus Nerve Alert:

  1. Getting enough rest
  2. Deep breathing
  3. Meditation
  4. Personal time
  5. Enjoyable activities
  6. Positive social connections & relationships
  7. Yoga
  8. Chiropractic adjustments to relieve nerve pressure
  9. Probiotics to assist gut health
  10. Outdoor and nature activities

It’s interesting…none of these things (above) seems particularly aggressive or proactive for weight loss itself, and yet, they’re exactly what our bodies need for it. I’ve seen this countless times with my clients – they don’t have to exercise as hard to achieve weight loss when they begin de-stressing, simplifying, prioritizing self-care, and generally not beating themselves up about “perfection” for their bodies, careers and relationships.

Over the last two years, I’ve found I do a little bit more of everything on this list. I go to a chiropractor once a week, get outside on the regular, started taking a new probiotic (with *prebiotics!*), find time to read and “do me,” attend yoga class once a week, sleep more at night, make time for friends and family, etc. It’s really not anything earth-shattering! These simple things are exactly what my body needed to let go of a little bit of inflammation and a few extra pounds.

I hope this serves you well on your weight loss or wellness journey, too.

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

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12 Quick Fixes for Back Pain

I know how miserable back pain can be. But, I also know from years of personal experience managing injury, inflammation, misalignment and aching for myself and others that spinal health is largely about the little things that add up. Simple exercises, ways we approach our day, and healthy habits can make a big difference. Whether you have back issues on a regular basis or just some discomfort during less active winter months full of movie watching and holiday travels, these quick fixes for pain can work for you! A happy back = A happy body.

untitled-design-3Foam Roll

Foam rolling is the equivalent of taking a giant-sized rolling pin to your body and working it out like a ball of cookie dough. Rolling out the kinks in myofascial tissue will help you feel better than gobbling up a handful of those warm cookies. I’m totally serious, people! 

You see, our muscles are all surrounded by fascia which is strong, thin, connective tissue that responds best to pressure in order to release tension and knots (whereas muscles respond best to stretching). If part of our fascia is too tight because of one of two extremes; improper recovery from hard exercise or not exercising enough, then the muscles underneath will not be able to move as effectively as they should. Dehydration can also cause this tissue to become rigid and stick too tightly to underlying muscles. You might not immediately feel the negative repercussions, but over time tight fascial tissue can result in your hips getting out of alignment, IT-band syndrome, low back pain, and more.

The key is to use a foam roller much like a rolling bin when baking. Start with long rolls, using your body against gravity on the foam roller, and then find the areas that need a little more attention. It might hurt a lot at first if you’re really tight (just being honest), but that will subside the more you do it. Plus, the tighter you feel, the more your body is telling you that it NEEDS this! Onward you roll! 

Apply Hot or Cold

Using heat or cold-pack treatments is a classic and super easy way to deal with nagging discomfort. The key is to know when to use each temperature. There is some debate about this in the medical community at large, depending on what culture and philosophy your doctor comes from, so take my advice with a grain of salt if you want.

I generally advise clients to use heat for aches that are chronic and cold for acute injuries. For example, if you have an aching low back that gets worse over the course of a few weeks but you can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the pain, then I suggest using a heat pack on it overnight or while you’re lying down for a period of time. If you have a sudden onset of pain like waking up in the morning with a piercing pain radiating from your neck to your temples or a shooting pain in your shoulder after lifting something, then I suggest you use ice. In both scenarios, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you’re concerned and the pain seems to linger or worsen.

Turn to the “McKenzie Method”

If you have low back pain that is chronic or acute (especially if you have sciatic pain), then finding a good physical therapist who can evaluate you via the McKenzie Method for low back pain is a great idea. The initial evaluation and first visits may not feel quick per say, but you will gain all sorts of fast, easy-to-perform-at-home exercises that will save you time and discomfort down the line.

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Stretch Hip Flexors and Hamstrings

Stretching these two muscle groups is one simple and effective way to rid yourself of tightness in your back. These muscles pull on the hips and spine and can thrown things out of whack when they are too tight. Both the hamstrings and hip flexors can get tight from sitting for long periods of time or exercising without enough follow-up stretching. Effective stretching can be done in less than five minutes. Hold each hamstring in a stretch for a full minute or slightly longer for maximal benefit (less than a solid minute of stretching may not help). Do the same thing for each hip flexor and you’re on your way to feeling sweet relief.

Correct Sitting, Lying and Standing Posture

The entire spine gets misshaped when we sit, lie and stand hunched over with our shoulders. The human spine’s curvature has specifically adapted to work with gravity, so when we take it out of its optimal position, it can no longer properly do its job. Also, when we are constantly tucked into a ball while sleeping or leaning forward at our desks, our musclces begin to develop a memory for being stretched out in the back and tight in the front. This will lead to all sorts of discomfort and issues down the line, plus it depletes from a tall, attractive posture (and by tall I mean upright – not necessarily sky-high height).

Correcting posture can actually feel uncomfortable, just like getting started with foam rolling. But, the more uncomfortable we are when standing with our shoulders back and heads held high, the more of a red flag our bodies are waving in front of us. Our bodies are screaming at us to get things back in order. It may be uncomfortable but it’s way easier than dealing with the fallout of bad posture over time. All it takes is reminding yourself to do it. Not too complicated, right?

Sleep with a Pillow Between Legs or Arms

Sleeping with a pillow between your legs or hugging it like a giant teddy bear in your arms can help “stack” your joints so they maintain better neutral alignment over the night. When you think about it, we are in bed for a long time every day. If we get 7-9 hours of sleep every night and are tucked into a ball, have one leg thrown over the other, or all our body weight on one shoulder the whole time, we are bound to eventually feel a little “off.” Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your legs can help alleviate some types of hip and low back pain. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your arms can help some types of thoracic and shoulder pain. Plus, it just feels snuggly. 🙂 

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Perform Chest Openers

Chest opening stretches or “heart-opening poses” in yoga are wonderful ways to make sure that the muscles of the chest stay stretched out and the ones in our backs stay tight enough. A lot of back pain comes from poor posture and all the movements we do like reaching forward which create tight muscles in the front of our bodies and loose ones in the back. Tight muscles are not the same as strong ones and loose muscles are not the same as flexible ones. So, it’s important to balance out our forward-reaching activities with a simple opening of the chest for 30-60 seconds a few times a day. A great time to do this is when you need to take a deep breath to think at work or when you are in the middle of chores at home. It can be as simple as standing in a door jam, holding onto the frame, and moving the rest of your body forward a couple steps. This can make for a nice deep release in the chest.

Exercise Large Back Muscles

Large back muscles can be targeted through lat pull downs, rows, pull-ups, reverse flies and rotator cuff exercises. Just spending a couple minutes on these muscles every gym visit can add up to a lot. That is, if you aren’t already working them out. It’s best to perform these exercises once your back is in alignment so make sure you’re using other techniques if you’re experiencing a lot of discomfort or pain.

Exercise Long Back Muscles

The long muscles in our backs can be targeted through all sorts of spinal extensions, typically best done lying face down on a mat and lifting our limbs, or from a standing position using exercise bands or cables. Again, a little can go a long way. It’s tough to remember that exercises like these are just as important as the ones that produce a mega sweat session, but they are. Just as important. If you’re feeling at a loss for how to get started on these, attend a beginner’s Pilates class and make notes of the exercises they do for the back. Try to repeat them at home or hit up the class again!

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Adjust Lifting and Carrying Form

Everything we do, from carrying little ones and groceries to lifting our luggage and briefcases, impacts our spinal health. When we repeat the same motions again and again on just one side of the body we risk throwing ourselves off in terms of both alignment and strength. Try to remember to switch baby from that favorite hip to the lesser-used one. Try to walk to work with your purse on the opposite shoulder sometimes. Simple things like that. It’s what makes or breaks us.

Use Lateral Movement

Lateral hip movement (and rotation, by the way) helps to stabilize the hips and take pressure off of the back. We do a lot of forward movement but not a lot of side-to-side, and it’s just as essential for our health. One of the best ways to tackle this type of movement is via clam shells and other lateral hip lifts which target the outside of your booty (aka the glut medius and glut minimus). All you have to do is put yourself in a side-lying position and lift the top leg up and down in various ways to elicit a burn in the outer compartment of your rear end. When you feel the burn, keep going! It’s good for you.

Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation sucks. It just makes everything miserable, including our backs. So, try to help your joints by eating a balanced diet with all the good stuff; leafy greens, berries, other fruits/veggies, whole grains, healthy fish, lean proteins, beans, nuts, you get the idea. People who are trying to heal from illness or injury will especially benefit in the healing process by eating as healthy as possible.

Also, drink plenty of water to keep joints lubricated and get a balance of exercise and adequate rest. The healthy basics really do a lot reduce inflammation.


Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

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