RE-ESTABLISHING GOOD VAGAL TONE AND BALANCE WITH HERBS
The vagus nerve was for a while thought of as ‘just one of the cranial nerves’. Its very name implies it is a wandering vagabond of a nerve, meandering around the body to nearly everywhere (not the adrenals though) and doing this in a vague manner. It is one of the cranial nerves but it is also a huge part of the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways of our autonomic nervous system. The nerve starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears and travels in multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem, down each side of the neck across the chest and down into the lowest reaches of the abdomen. It connects from the brain to the lungs, the heart, the spleen the guts, the kidneys and the reproductive organs amongst other places. It also networks with the nerves involved in speech, facial expression, eye contact and much more. It receives stimulation from a lot of these organs and the information it receives can be very influential on whether we feel relaxed, confident, capable and energetic (toned) or stressed and alarmed. It conveys information from the different centres back to the brain to get a consensual decision. Stress, inflammation, trauma, or tension in any region can cause an overall lack of balance or tone or lead to some quite unusual symptoms that are often dismissed as being hypochondria or psychosomatic, or all in the head. The vagus nerve can produce quite pronounced symptoms without the presence of organic disease process but these can be extremely debilitating to people. This happens when the parasympathetic activation of the vagus nerve does not kick in to balance out sympathetic response to adrenaline and cortisol by releasing neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to slow us down. The symptoms of loss of vagal tone can be many and varied and may range from:
- Earache with no physical cause. Or other symptoms in the ears such as tinnitus or itching
- A sensation of tightness or a lump in the throat and difficulty swallowing
- Neck tension
- A sensation of pressure in the chest
- Tachycardia, palpitations, or skipped beats
- Sensations of breathlessness
- Tingling and numbness or Raynauds type symptoms in the hands and/or feet
- Epigastric pain, stomach cramps or butterflies in the stomach
- Strange flitting pains in the intestines
- Faintness, dizziness, lightheadedness
- Sensations of being extremely hot or cold accompanied by sweating
- Fuzzy thoughts, a slight inability to form words
- Visual disturbances such as lights seem too bright, fuzzy or tunnel vision or black spots in the vision
- Frequent urination
- A desire for copious amounts of cold water
- And others too many to mention
Obviously, some of these symptoms can be indicative of potentially serious organic disease and it is important to make sure these are not present.
The symptoms of vagal imbalance can be acute or chronic, depending on how healthy the vagus nerve is and how well it has retained its ability to return to tone. Chronic conditions can severely affect vagus tone.
Good vagal tone is when the parasympathetic part of the vagus nerve is able to kick in under pressure so that one can relax into dealing with a situation. However, many people today have gone beyond the point of healthy stress into a less coping place; this particularly true amongst many young people. Symptoms can also arise after a period of illness or extreme physical stress or trauma such as a car crash or fall. Extreme or prolonged emotional stress can also cause an imbalance.
For example, a young woman who came to me (the doctors had told her there was nothing wrong). She would get severe stomach cramps, craved large quantities of cold water and suffered painful spasms during and after sexual intercourse. She was extremely stressed about he college studies and the environment in which she was studying.
There are various techniques that can help to engage good vagal tone such as visualization, cold water splashed o the face using neuroplasticity re-wiring, physical exercise, avoiding anxious people and much more besides.
There are also many herbs that can help work in various ways, some well understood, some less well understood. Some work due to the presence of a single constituent group and others work due to the range of constituents they contain which affect several parts of the vagus nerve in several ways.
I am only just starting to explore this area but find it fascinating. The information below comes in part from lecture notes and reading around the area and partly from experiential evidence, what works in practice. The information is on no way complete but is the beginning of an exploration and I look forward to hearing about other people’s experience, knowledge and expanding how this approach can be helpful in practice.
Some groups of herbs that can help with vagal tone:
Ones containing cyanogenic glycosides such as Sambucus nigra fructus, Achillea millefolium, Prunus serotina . All these herbs can help to rebalance all aspects of vagal tone. For example, one of my colleagues found that Wild cherry bark given for a bout of bronchitis also improved the patient’s digestion and helped bring down their blood pressure.
Volatile oil rich herbs of several classes can help:
Ones with a volatile oil rich in esters have a calming effect on the central nervous system and induce better parasympathetic tone, releasing stress, shock and tension in the system. These include Lavandula species, Cananga odorata, Pelargonium asperum, Anthemis nobilis, Citrus reticulata, Citrus aurantium flos. Citrus aurantium flos is traditionally used in the Lebanon as a ‘rescue remedy’ for clearing shock and trauma. It contains a volatile oil rich in esters which reset the CNS releasing trauma but it is also a gently warming bitter and seems to help balance the pancreas.
Plants with volatile oil rich in phenyl methyl ethers include Foeniculum vulgare, Angelica archangelica, Pimpinella anisum, Ocimum basilicum and Ocimum sanctum. These are rather more warming and stimulating but with improve both sympathetic and parasympathetic tone in small to moderate doses. Large doses can induce too much ssympathetic stimulation.
Plants rich in monoterpenes include (Pinus sylvestris, Boswellia serrulata, Citrus limomum, Piper nigrum, Picea species. These are particularly good at improving vagal tone in the respiratory area although they will also work on other areas. The pines and spruce are particularly valuable for relaxing and expanding the lungs but also help balance the neuro-endocrine complex (acting on the HPA axis) and thereby improve vagal tone.
Plants containing aldehyde rich volatile oils include Melissa officinalis, Alyosia triphyllata, Cymbogon citratus. These exhibit different actions depending on the dose. Smaller doses are relaxing and improve vagal tone, lowering high blood pressure and relieving digestive spasm. However, higher doses can become over stimulating and irritating.
Plants rich in ketones can be wonderful. We have to be a little cautious with some of them since used for too long or in too high a dose some ketones become neurotoxic and can have the reverse effect to the desired one so they are often used in low dose or for a minimum of about 3 weeks then a break is taken. Herbs rich in these constituents include Hyssop (used to treat epilepsy), rosemary, sage, mugwort, wormwood and thuja (all rich in thujone), fennel, peppermint and immortelle (Helichrysum italicum whose ketones are non-toxic). Jasmine flowers also contain non-toxic ketones. These plants all have a marked effect on parasympathetic tone.
There are many other examples of other herbs containing volatile oils and oils that are rich in other constituents but this gives some idea of how valuable herbs of this type (and the essential oils extracted from them) are for improving vagal tone.
Bitters have a wonderful range of actions on vagal tone since they open the heart and circulation, work on the gut brain and clear the liver and gall bladder amongst other things. There are several classes of bitters and the ones chosen depend on several factors, not least whether the person needs warming (the type who goes cold when vagal tone is not good), cooling (the type who gets hot and sweaty when vagal tone is challenged), or needs balancing (they get temperature fluctuations when vagal tone is compromised).
Bitters are invaluable for balancing vagal tone since they work on the heart, the gut brain, the liver and on the nervous system. There are several classes of bitters and the bitter chosen for a particular individual depends on their particular condition.
Warming bitters are valuable for those who find that they become cold, with low blood pressure and pallor. These include Inula helenium, Angelica archangelica, Citrus aurantium flos, rosmarinus officinalis
Cooling bitters are more suitable for those who experience flushing, heat and elevated blood pressure and include Arctium lappa, Verbena officinalis, Gentaina lutea, Erythrea centaurea, Cyanara scolymus
Balancing bitters normalize the temperature and are good for those who experience alternating heat and cold; examples are Matricaria recutita and possible Stachys betonica. Stachys does a lovely visual description of the vagus nerve with its pink flowers held on rather wiggly stems reaching down to firmly anchored roots and leaves reminiscent of the pancreas.
Valeriana officinalis has the happy ability to block our response to the excitatory neurotramsmitters, calming us whilst improving our concentration and physical capacity. It is quite a heating remedy so is not so suited for those with a lot of trapped heat.
Geranium robertianum balances blood sugars, balances blood pressure, encourages neurogenesis which only occurs when the being feels safe and relaxed in the oxytocin zone of rest, repair, regenerate, resolve.
Capsicum can help due to its ‘the slap in the face’ effect. A wee shock that helps jolt the vagus nerve back into tone.
Other groups of herbs can help due to the fact they reduce stress in the system, or improve resilience to stress; the adaptogens of which there are many examples in our indigenous and naturalised flora such as Sambucus nigra fructus, Arctium lappa, Taraxacum officinale, Inula helenium, Salvia officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, Plantago major and lanceolata.
Herbs that are calming nervines can help by reducing sympathetic stimulation and improving parasympathetic tone thus rebalancing and include Scutellaria lateriflora and Verbena officinalis, along with Melissa officinalis and many others.
The heart is the largest and most powerful electro-magnetic resonator and centre of neural tissue in the body. As such the heart is the organ that is most able to balance vagal tone. If the heart is happy then this has a wonderful effect on vagal tone so heart herbs such as Leonorus cardiaca, Passiflora incarnata, Crateagus, Tilia, Theobroma, Rosa, Foeniculum vulgare, Melissa officinalis and Rosmarinus officinalis are excellent ones to consider.
Several of our endogenous chemicals are involved in improving vagal tone and allowing us to move through trauma and stress, releasing the trauma of the events so that although we remember the event we do not continually revisit the pain of this. A classic example is the way our hormones assist in childbirth (one of the hardest labour of love) where we release a balance of adrenaline and oxytocin to allow the work to be done (the stressful event to be dealt with) but we also release large amounts of endorphins. Afterward we produce a substance called anandamide which is our endogenous cannabinoid – Cocoa contains anandamide, proanthocyanidins fit into the cannabiniods receptors and blueberry has been suggested as a treatment for PTSD (Vaccinium myrtillus does similar work as does Elderberry, hawthorn, rosehip and sour cherries). Echinacea alkamides also fit into these receptors and this herb has been shown to help treat fatigue and burnout. Capsicum constituents also fit into these receptors, possibly part of this herb’s slap in the face to re-centre effect. The appropriate stimulation of these receptors can help with vagal tone and re-balancing for sure.
I also wonder whether glucosilinates have an action since they have such a strong effect on the digestive system and the womb?
Any herb that stimulates or improves gut tone will help with vagal tone since if the gut brain is not happy we find it hard to relax and concentrate, to learn and perform well- contrary to present techniques in schooling in many places we actually learn better in community and co-operation rather than being encouraged to compete against others or ourselves or being forced into stressful tests and short fire questions which elicits answers from the adrenalized fear flight sympathetic system or causes a freeze. Having said that with good vagal tone the parasympathetic balances this to move towards fun solutions and engagement of creativity. This is not often welcomed in classrooms but is a great bonus in the real world especially with the challenges we fact at present. Plants such as mustard, horseradish and wasabi, wild rocket all help with gastrointestinal tone and clear the sinuses. Capsella bursa-pastoris is helpful for improving womb tone and reducing bleeding (along with Geranium robertianum, Mentha species and Vaccinium myrtillus). Vagal tone is really important for womb health and excess bleeding can be a good indication of stress. It is an interesting though anyhow. Some of all these remedies effect on the womb may be mediated by their effect of mucus membranes and capillary tone but these are strongly effected by the balance of the vagus nerve.
In one way all this information is irrelevant but since the importance of the vagus nerve has been revealed once again and explains various symptoms most excellently it is valuable to engage with our allies to see what they have to say about how they work on this level.
It has been discovered that we have taste and smell receptors throughout our bodies and scientists are wondering why. Could it be that when we get a taste in our mouth it is not just the liver that has a reflex action. What if the sour receptors in the spine respond to this taste via the vagus nerve, the bitter receptors in the heart and sinuses respond via this route (Rose and Cocoa for the heart and Yarrow for the sinuses, the sweet receptors in the kidney/adrenal complex respond to sweet taste explain part of the action of Codonoposis and licorice and a cup of warm sweet milk tea if shocked or surprised. This is all supposition and hypothesis but that is where good explorations start from. In truth, the vagus nerve is intimately involved in garnering information from both our internal and external environments, it senses taste, smell, touch, sound, sight, electromagnetic information and all our sensory input. When it is toned and balanced it becomes less reactive, more able to just sense and discern what is helpful and what is not and to elicit reactions in line with that information (such as vomiting if too much is taken) and then go back to a calm state.
This article may well be rather meandering and wanders around quite a bit but such is the nature of exploring the vagus nerve. There is probably a lot more to elucidate about the role of this nerve in mediating a happy state and the role of the plants in keeping or vagal tone healthy.
For our first attempt at mead (or more properly metheglin, since mead is usually just made with honey according to some people whilst metheglins use herbal infusions and honey) we made a strong infusion of meadowsweet flowers and left it sitting overnight. The next day we strained it off and added 1 part honey to 5 parts infusion in a large pyrex bowl; we have recently discovered the benefits of doing small R&D runs. We decided to see if it would ferment with the wild yeasts on the flowers and in the atmosphere. So we covered the bowl with muslin and just stirred it every day. For the first 3 days it did not look too promising but one the 4th day it started bubbling nicely. We decided just to leave it for 8 days as we were not interested in a high alcohol content. After 8 days we decanted it off into bottles which we put in the fridge maturing and found we had an excellent crop of starter yeast in the bottom of the bowl. Those who have sampled it have pronounced the flavor excellent. It has a nice effervescence and the taste is a lovely combination of meadowsweet and honey; a bit on the sweet side for me. It should be great medicine for the stomach and gut flora and be full of B vitamins as a live ferment.
Since the first experiment we have made several more, including Lemon verbena and Elderberry and ginger using the yeast from the first batch. Our next run was with rosehips and for this one we doubled the amount of honey which gave a sweeter batch; like a rosehip syrup/ginger beer. We have just done a run of rose petal and cardamom combined, with the higher honey content; this is rather drier but the flavor has a nice balance to it and is maturing well. The resultant meads or metheglins are now maturing in the ‘cellar’, or rather a cool press in the lobby; apparently such beverages need to be matured for up to 5 years but I don’t think they will be left quite that long. We now have quite a good batch of yeast; the next experiment will be a plain honey mead, partly to give the yeasts a good feed and once that is done hopefully there will be sufficient dandelion flowers to try a batch with those, apparently they work rather well.
LACTO-FERMENTING is one of those amazing processes in nature and real kitchen magic. Kimchi (that’s the Korean version) or fermented vegetables are the most miraculous way of preparing a probiotic and prebiotic fermented food that I have come across. It is a simple way of creating a lactobacillus rich food from raw vegetables and the best thing for healthy guts I have encountered. This method also means you can prepare enough vegetables for a week or two all in one go. In the autumn one of the students turned up with a big bag of veg so we decided to experiment with root ferments for the winter. Soon we will be doing ones from fresh greens, herbs and stuff from the garden and around. One can also use this method to preserve herbs for use over the winter. So basically, one chops grates or slices the vegetables. Initially, we made one from kale and beetroot with onions and the other from onions, celeriac and carrots. Other things we have used over the winter include red cabbage, peppers and swede. You can use just about anything. So you prepare the vegetables, then put them into a pyrex bowl and cover them with brine (2-3 tablespoons of sea salt dissolved in 1 litre of water, use more water if you need to with additional salt). Some people feel you should use spring water or chlorine free water, or you can just boil water and allow it to cool to remove most of the chlorine; we just use water straight from the tap and it seems to work fine. Then put a plate on top of the vegetables and weigh it down (I just stand a mason jar of lentils on top). Leave it over night then strain off the vegetables, saving the brine. Mash about 5 cloves of garlic, grate about 2-3 tablespoons of fresh ginger (or you can use ginger powder), mix these together and add 1-2 teaspoons of chilli powder and mix into a paste with some of the brine. If you are usinga lot of brassicas you can add a little fennel powder to prevent wind; you could probably add other herbs and spices tooStir the paste through the vegetables and pack them into a kilner/mason jar and cover with the saved brine. Cover with a square of muslin and keep in warm place, stirring daily to ensure all the vegetables stay submerged. Taste each day until it is sufficiently fermented (it will start to taste slightly vinegary. When sufficiently fermented put into closed jars and store in the fridge. Salt induces a lacto-fermentation from the lactobacilli naturally present in the atmosphere and on the vegetables. This also explains why some salt is necessary in the diet to balance our gut flora and encourage proper break down of vegetables (its one of the reasons why ruminants like cows and horses benefit from salt licks). Hope that explains the process properly, it’s really easy and the finished vegetables can be added into soups, stir fries, sandwiches, stirred through rice or barley or other grains, or added to salads.
Nature Whispering brings us deep into the powerful Earth Medicine we need to BE the evolutionary shift. Become authentically indigenous and learn how to communicate with Nature Beings, perceiving accurately what they are saying and share the Sacred Earth healing we have to offer each other.
A training series of two weekend intensive playshops that will take us on a journey deep into the heart of Nature. This program is about becoming indigenous through our natural self within and around us in a communicative manner, realising we can understand what our fellow beings are saying to us.
The workshops will be held in Magourney, Coachford, Cork and in Hollyfort, Gorey Wexford.
Hollyfort: 6th/7th August and 3rd/4th September. Contact Alex for info and booking, 086 385 5333 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Magourney: 20th/21st August and 18/19th September. Contact Nikki for info and booking, 087 340 2442 or email@example.com
Suitable for herbalists, complementary therapists, gardeners, environmentalists, ecologists, artists, spiritual seekers, practitioners and just about anyone wanting to connect more deeply with Nature and Earth.
The way this healing occurs;
Setting up resonance between the human and the nature being creates the path for the sacred earth medicine to flow and the vibrational effects are manifold. Centring, grounding, stabilising, refreshing and resetting to the original energetic blueprint that nature intended. Bringing the intellectual head energy down into the Earth rooted centres enabling a feeling heart guided presence to develop. This is the authentic indigenous way, the natural way of being human. This society is damaging us and tricking us into not trusting our own innate being and senses, so we go further and deeper into real experiential communication, opening the way.
Many healers are wanting to connect more deeply with our indigenous plants, our native land and our local traditions which lie within our bones and the stories of this land. These workshops are designed to help us remember who were are, become indigenous to our place, to this land and so connect more fully with the plants, the soil, the land, the other beings and hear their stories, to help us step into healthy kinship with them and be in council with them again.
This work helps us to become healthier in ourselves and recover our sacred medicine; it helps us to connect to our plant and nature allies and to become better healers as we learn to listen to the stories that people bring to us. This will also enable healers to facilitate Nature contact within their own practices for deep therapeutic effects.
Cost €175.00 per person per weekend, including refreshments, a vegetarian lunch and full set of course notes.
Places are limited to around 16 participants in total and concessions may be available for unwaged people.
Facilitators: Nikki Darrell and Alex Duffy are co-facilitating all of the workshops together.
SEED SAVING; Increasing biodiversity, restoring our native species populations, herb and plant sovereignty
A few years ago someone in the local gardening group suggested that we get someone to give a workshop on how to save seeds. I think in the end some people travelled down to Brown Envelop Seeds, a great company that sells a range of vegetable and herbs seeds that they have grown and saved themselves (see the Veriditas Hibernica resources section for a link to their website).
I decided just to give it a go and see how many plants we could save seeds from to share with the students and other interested people and how difficult it would be to do this.
The last two summers have been great for getting good yields of seeds. What we discovered was that seed saving is not difficult. One difficulties here can be high humidity or preciptation levels so that one has to watch out for the ideal harvest day and optimum seed maturity and hope that they coincide. If they do not I discovered that one can harvest the mature seed and blot them with kitchen paper and allow to dry gradually for storage.
“It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again ‘invisibly’ inside us.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Did you know that:
- As well as being a food, a medicine and a plant fertiliser nettles have also be used to spin the finest linen?
- As well as producing delicious fruit blackberries are also used medicinally and that the leaves contain more antioxidants than green tea?
- Dandelion leaves can be used in salads, are a potassium supplement, a diuretic and also a tonic to the liver, whilst the roots can be steamed or stir fried as a vegetable, used for a liver cleanse or roasted as a coffee substitute?
- The elder tree produces flowers that can be used for food and medicine, it produces berries that can be eaten but which have also been shown to as effective for colds and flus as Echinacea is? As well as being effective they can be harvested sustainably; because the berries are being harvested the plant is not destroyed and can continue to provide food for bees and insects and birds and to provide a habitat for several species, including badgers who often build their dens near elder trees. As a native species it is particularly important for supporting native wildlife.
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not teach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient laws of life.”
One of the central visions of Veriditas Hibernica is to help people to reconnect with the natural world and to step into care-taking our plant kin and ecosystems so that we can co-create a healthier future with them. As people engage with this work they reconnect with themselves and discover who they actually are.