Updated: Oct 15, 2021
This week we get to the root cause of why we are feeling and dealing with various ailments, the easy ways we can activate our vagus nerve, and more with Functional Medicine Doctor, and Author of Activate Your Vagus Nerve, Dr. Navaz Habib.
If you're stressed, inflamed, have stomach and headaches, brain fog, anxiety, or depression, please take the time to invest in yourself by listening to this episode or picking up a copy of Dr. Habib's book.
Mentioned In The Episode:
💻 : Health Upgraded
Interview with Dr. Habib
*Text has been edited for clarity
Leanne: I wanted to tell you that the vagus nerve has been a very elusive thing for me. I've read a lot of books on digestion and health in general. And they've referred to it a little bit, but I kind of understood it as a brain-body connection to just the stomach and nothing further. And I trained a client that has pretty severe digestive problems. And so I told her, I would look into it. And that's how I discovered your book. And I was just totally blown away at what the vagus nerve is, and everything it does for us. And I definitely want to get into all that in a little bit. But I did want to ask you first, for our listeners, what is the vagus nerve, and why is it so important?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah, it's a great question. And the vagus nerve really, truly is, in my opinion, the nerve of thriving, we tend to think of health as just survival and being able to kind of be here present. But the vagus nerve is that thriving nerve, the nerve that if it's functioning really well, provides all of the foundational tools for optimal function within our bodies. It is the 10th cranial nerve. So we have 12 pairs of cranial nerves, either the nerves that go to the head and face area, but only one of these cranial nerves leave this area, and that is the vagus nerve. It's called the vagus nerve. Because the root word of the Vegas nerve is vague or wandering is kind of where it came from. And because of that, it was given that name simply because it goes so extensively throughout the rest of our body, it's so important to send information from the brain to so many different organs, and from all of those organs back up to the brain. And that's what's really great about this nerve is it's so widespread, it's so vast, and its control and its function, that if we look at it holistically, and we understand how to optimize and create an optimal function within it, then we can create optimal health and thrive throughout our entire body.
So what made you so interested in the vagus nerve in writing a book about it?
Dr. Navaz Habib: I'm a chiropractor by profession. And so being a chiropractor, I was always really interested in the nervous system, really interested in physiological function, and how our brains kind of interact with the rest of our bodies. And so the cranial nerve 10 was this really cool nerve, it was the one that left the head cavity, it was the one that traveled alongside the carotid artery and jugular vein. And it was so important in creating a connection between the brain and the heart, the lungs, all of the organs within the abdomen. We always talk, from a chiropractic perspective, when the nerves are out of alignment when the spine is out of alignment. It creates pressure and puts issues through the nerves to all of these other organs. And it actually leads to challenges within those areas. That's where my interest in it began, but it kind of waned after a little while as I started just getting into chiropractic care and hands-on kind of function, but it always kind of was there in the back of my mind. When I graduated from chiropractic college in 2010, I weighed 250 pounds, I had high blood pressure, high blood sugar, I was borderline diabetic, I had so many health challenges that somebody in their 20s should not have. And it was just something that was always underlying, always causing challenges within me. And so as I started to learn about functional medicine and understand the root cause of my health conditions, my health challenges, I was able to start making some changes. I started identifying what was going wrong using functional lab testing, identifying which nutrients were missing in my body understanding why it was happening because something was happening within my gut that was not optimal. And so these tests gave me this direction, it gave me a very clear picture and understanding of what was happening. And I was able to take steps accordingly. I lost 75 pounds, I got rid of all of those health struggles. And in doing so I realized that the stuff that I was doing in Chiropractic and the understanding of what health truly was, and in being able to thrive, being able to show up with energy every morning, being able to be the best version of myself, because biochemically and physically, I was functioning at a much higher level than I was previously, that was what I needed to share with people. And that was the connection point for me back to the vagus nerve because it was such a wide-ranging, optimal change that occurred within my body, it led to all of these positive changes. I started to learn a little bit more about the connection to the digestive system, the connection to the immune system, the connection to inflammation, the connection to hormones, and taking all that information and being able to plug it into what I was doing, not only for myself but then with clients with patients. And then I shifted my practice from hands-on chiropractic into functional medicine because of that. And as I became more and more aware of how the vagus nerve functioned, how we could optimize it, what are the little changes that we could make to make it work, That's what led me to write the book and going through this becoming of "The Vagus Nerve Guy" as it stands.
Calla: That's a good title.
Leanne: I've been in the health and fitness industry for over 10 years now, and why am I just now learning about this? Why don't why aren't more people talking about the vagus nerve?
Dr. Navaz Habib: It's a great question. I'll say, in my opinion from the way that I've kind of thought about these things. It's overlooked significantly. And it's because it's such a vast and misunderstood nerve. And I think that's really where we can start to enlighten ourselves a little bit and learn what the next steps are with it. There's so much research that's been done on this nerve if you go to PubMed, or even just Googling Vagus Nerve Functions. It'll come up as a parasympathetic nervous system that's done.
Calla: That's what I kept coming up against and then I just shut down.
Dr. Navaz Habib: And that's important, right? Like the parasympathetic nervous system is, is controlled through the vagus nerve. But only 15% of the information on the vagus nerve is parasympathetic 85% of the information on this nerve is not. That means that there's so much more information that's going through this nerve. If you go through the research, and you truly understand what it's meant to be doing, that's, that's probably why it hasn't come out because it's- go ask any conventional medical doctor, "What is my Vegas nerve?" They'll say parasympathetic nervous system? And then you can ask them, what does it do? And they'll probably say, Well, I don't know. That's about it. They haven't been taught about it. They haven't, it hasn't been a source of therapy. Unfortunately, it hasn't been a source or a target for therapeutic approaches as yet. And I think that's something that needs to change.
Calla: Yeah, big missed opportunity to help a lot of people for sure.
Leanne: What type of information does the vagus nerve send from your brain to your body?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah, so we kind of alluded to this, but that 15% of inflammation, that's parasympathetic, that's controlling the automatic functions within our body. These are functions called the autonomic nervous system. So we have two branches to the autonomic nervous system. And what the autonomic nervous system controls are all of the things that we don't consciously think about that our body's always doing. We're breathing, I'm not thinking about my heartbeat. And but it is not thinking about detoxifying my blood, but it's happening, not thinking about digesting my food and letting that turn into what it needs to and go through and get the nutrients in. But those things are happening. And so those automatic functions that need to happen without our conscious thought, are what's controlled by this autonomic nervous system. We've two branches within that system, the ones that are focused on our survival, that's the sympathetic nervous system. That's the fight and flight system. And then we've got the parasympathetic side, which is the rest and digest side. I've added a little bit to this. It's not rest and digest, It's rest, digest, and recovery. This is really important. We tend to forget that recovery piece here. We tend to forget that our bodies go through stressors every single day. We're challenged with financial challenges. We're challenged with physical stress, we're challenged with biochemical toxins and stuck with them and around us, those stressors build up. And so we have a certain threshold that we can handle. And we need that recovery to take place so that we can handle it day after day after day, we don't, that our body starts to slowly deteriorate and go down a path of disease and not health anymore. And so what the vagus nerves job is- is to control that parasympathetic nervous system to shift us into that state where we can go into rest, or we can go into digestion state where our digestive system actually functions really well. And then the last part is that recovery piece recovering from those stressors that are occurring on a day-to-day basis.
That's that 15% of information on the parasympathetic side. The big piece of information on the vagus nerve is the information that's coming from all of the other organs going up to the brain. These are like the thermostat markers. This is the status update of what's happening within our body going up to our brain so that it can be processed. That central location 80% of the information is there. That's information about what's happening in our heart, what's going on with our heartbeat, what's going on with our lungs. Are we breathing? Are we using our diaphragm? Or are we using our accessory breathing muscles? What's going on with the stomach? Do we produce enough stomach acid or not? Is there maybe some sort of inflammatory trigger that's leading to heartburn or something along with that. What's going on in the liver? The liver has like 500 different functions. Honestly, if we go through it my opinion, the organ that matters the most to our thriving is they'll never, in the same way, that if a garbage man doesn't show up, if the garbageman doesn't show up to our stuff, every week, the garbage piles up, the toxins build up, the rats, and whatever else shows up, we have challenges within our system. In the same way, if our liver doesn't clear out those toxins on its in the way that it should, it's going to create all of these major challenges within our body, the toxins build up. So the liver is really important here. And so we get a lot of information passing from the liver to the brain telling us what are we dealing with. And then the most important area is that gut-brain connection. That's where the vagus nerve really thrives, we have 100 trillion bacteria in our large intestine alone, we need to know what's going on with that information, we only have 50 trillion human cells in our own body. So that balance of information, the balance of what's going on in the microbiome, needs to be status updated to the brain. And that information needs to pass effectively. If it doesn't, we have imbalanced that occurs within the gut, we have an imbalance that occurs within the microbiome that leads to inflammation that leads to possibly immune challenges that leads to major dysfunction throughout the rest of our body. So this is where a lot of these challenges can come up, we need to make sure that the vagus nerve is getting that status update to the brain, making that information available to whatever else needs to happen there. So 80% coming up from the guts from the organs to the brain 15% from the brain as parasympathetic information, and then we have a 5% remaining about 4% of that is motor information. And these are where we can actually create therapy and actually use this information to activate the vagus nerve. So the motor branches go to the pharyngeal and laryngeal muscles, essentially, the muscles at the back of the airway, the back of the throat, and the muscles around the vocal cords. So the reason I have pitch and tone within my voice, the reason I can go really, really low or really, really high is because of my Vagus nerve.
Leanne: Can you go higher? I'm just kidding.
Dr. Navaz Habib:
I don't want to scare anyone off, but my daughters can go higher. The nerve inflammation, it's going to those muscles is creating tension within the vocal cords. And that's what's allowing for pitch and tonality within our voice as well. So we have to keep that information in mind. So that's 4% of the information is going to those muscles, we can use these and this is important to keep in mind for when we get to how do we therapeutically boost or activate the nerve to do its job effectively. The last little bit is that the last 1% of information that comes through the auricular branch of the vagus nerve actually goes to the skin on the ear. And this is also something that we can use therapeutically. We can do acupressure. We can do acupuncture, we can actually just even press or tickle the skin of the ear to stimulate the vagus nerve. And so this is information that we can use in a therapeutic setting. So this is what we'll talk about down the road for sure.
Leanne: I did want to ask because you were talking so much about the gut. A lot of my clients deal with cravings being one of their major boundaries for you know, making long-lasting improvement. You talked in the book about the connection between your gut microbiome and your cravings. Can you explain that?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah, no question. There's a very strong connection between the hormones and the neurotransmitters that are created within our gut, and the cravings that we have, which is really crazy. So just as a fun little stat for us about 94% of the serotonin within our body is located within our enteric nervous system. What that means is, serotonin is our mood molecule, the reason we crave or we want, or we're happy when we have certain foods, or we feel happier when certain things happen. That comes into the gut is because it's stimulating serotonin production, and 94% of that serotonin in the enteric nervous system, meaning the nervous system in and around the gut. It's what's considered the second brain, in my opinion, it's actually the first.
There are more nerve endings in the gut than there are in our brain and our central nervous system, which is crazy. Yeah, the serotonin levels that are there are directly proportionate to the microbiome that we have. So our gut microbiome being balanced creates this serotonergic connection, we actually produce serotonin based on the byproducts that are created by these bacteria based on the foods that we're eating, when we have a diet that isn't optimal or is full of sugar, or whatever else that could be creating these challenges, that shifts the bacterial balance, which leads to different changes in serotonin. And what happens is that bacterial population wants certain things to come in. They want the sugar, they want the chocolate, they want the coffee, and they're gonna go out and create those cravings by shifting your serotonin balance within your gut. When they talk about gut feelings. That's what they're talking about. And so those gut feelings, those, those cravings, those desires, shift serotonin, and even dopamine as well, which is more of that motivation, reward-seeking active activation that occurs within our neurotransmitters. And then on the hormone side, different hormones, obviously, a hormonal balance. If we're talking stress hormones, sex hormones, we can activate different microbiome balances based on our biochemistry based on our hormone balance. And so that can create some cravings. Obviously, for your females, at certain times of the month, we might crave more carbs, or we might crave more fats at certain different times. for males, that happens in a slightly different way, "Man-o-pause" is a whole nother thing that we can talk about down the road.
Leanne: Yeah, please.
Calla: Lots of questions on that.
Dr. Navaz Habib: Men have hormone changes, too, I can assure you. But essentially, what happens is we have these microbiome changes, which lead to neurotransmitter changes, which create these cravings. And so that balance of serotonin, that balance of dopamine is what actually leads to the cravings in our gut, and it's a gut feeling that triggers that desire that wants, you often notice that the raving occurs in your mouth, not in your brain. So it's more about oh, I wanted to hear, I want to feel it. And it's actually your gut bacteria telling you they want it.
Leanne: It's like you're hijacked.
Calla: That's crazy. Oh my gosh, I've got a shitstorm going on inside your hearing that explanation. That's wild, I did not know that. I did not know any of that. So Leanne sang the praises of your book and so that's how I even heard about the vagus nerve. So I'm coming in just ready to learn and I'll pick my mouth up off the ground right now. I'll let you continue. But like, I had no idea that any of that stuff was, you know, all contributing that's interesting.
Dr. Navaz Habib:
It is ghrelin as well, which has to do with hunger and overeating. And there are all of those hormones that link very strongly to that gut microbiome as well. And so obesity and diabetes, are all linked to Vagus nerve function and the gut microbiome balance as well.
Leanne: And just as easy as it is for your gut microbiome to send that message of craving to your brain, Is it possible for you to kind of forcefully change your eating habits to change the gut microbiome to change the craving message?
Dr. Navaz Habib: It's a slightly more difficult pathway, but with a stronger connection through the vagus nerve, being able to shift yourself into parasympathetic more, more readily, you can help to shift the microbiome balance. It's almost more of a willpower type of creation. saying that if I have the ability to shift in that parasympathetic, I tend to have higher willpower. And so then the biochemistry will follow because the actions will create the changes internally. So avoiding sugar for a month will lead to less sugar cravings after that month. But it's because of the strong Vegas nerve function, the strong parasympathetic activation that you've got going on earlier on, you're more likely to have less of those challenges, you're more likely to complete that four-month of minimal sugar or whatever it is you're trying to do.
Leanne: So does then does eating a lot of sugar and having a poor diet, create a fight or flight state?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah, it absolutely does. When we take on too much of these negative inputs, the sugars, the processed foods, ultra-processed foods, seed oil, stuff like that, what we're essentially doing is we're shifting the microbiome, which is creating more of these challenges, it's creating more stress. And what that does is that stress is what takes over or hijacks the vagus nerve and pushes us into a sympathetic response more readily. So we're more in that fight or flight response even from a biochemical level. Because the issues or the internal area have been basically hijacked by this excess inflammation. So chronic use of these stressors, chronic biochemical stress, including chronic physical stress and emotional and psychological stressors are things that we're more used to calling stress will all lead to suppression of the vagus nerve and more of a shift towards that sympathetic side.
Calla: I'm wondering, have they done any studies that you're aware of, of people who have spinal cord injuries? How does this affect them? And can they get anything back after the damage has been done?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Great question. It's not spinal cord injuries, okay, into an issue here because the vagus nerve leaves the brain above the spinal cord. So we've got the brain, okay, cerebellum, which is kind of that hindbrain area that behind that hindbrain area, and then we've got the brainstem. The brainstem is this area, we've all heard of like the medulla oblongata. That whole area inside there, there's a bunch of nuclei where the cranial nerves begin. That's where the vagus nerve comes out from the brainstem and then descends into the spinal cord. So spinal cord injury is not an issue that said, Vagus nerve injury is and so you can injure your vagus nerve or compress it, or have physical trauma to the vagus nerve, it's very, very common. Whiplash is very heavily associated with it. Surgical interruption of the nerve is very common as well, especially if you're having something done in and around the gut. Snipping or accidentally having a piece of the vagus nerve cut is a very common occurrence. The most common thing that occurs here is the slowing down of the digestive system. Certain conditions lead to incredibly slow function of the stomach, incredibly slow peristalsis. It's because of the potential damage that's occurred within the vagus nerve. So Vegas nerve damage can be both physical or biochemical and functional in nature, as well. So there are different ways that this can be affected. But yeah, there are quite a few studies out there showing that when the Vegas nervous cut in some way or shape, it actually leads to significant challenges below. And that's how we know what the functions of the vagus nerve.
Calla: So how do you test that or find that in patients that there is the damage? Like, what's that process look like?
Dr. Navaz Habib: So often just going back towards their history and understanding? Did they have a car accident? Do they have a physical trauma that might have occurred? Did they have some sort of biochemical challenge that might have led to it it's a matter of being kind of more of that detective, and figuring out exactly what those historical markers are that might have led to it. This is something that functional medicine really taught me to do. Well, it's a timeline out people's lives, and understand kind of step by step, what are the pieces to their health puzzle that occurred and being able to look back and say, okay, you had a car accident when you were 15. And then when you were 17, you really started having these gut issues. And now, these challenges of blah, blah, blah, right? So time lining these things out and being able to identify where that root cause or that traumatic incident occurred. That's going to create a real positive change.
Calla: Wow. Yeah. That's really amazing. I know a lot of people, and I'll just speak on my experience I've been that's such a process to have to go through that and to find a doctor who will sit down and do that with you or someone that you trust is so difficult. I mean, that's a big reason why I'm so hesitant to go to the doctor. But and that's why I'm drawn more towards the functional medicine side of things. Because I do feel like it's, it's more of like a catered experience almost a boutique experience, where they do sit down and get to know you and not just prescribe. So that's, that's incredible.
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah, I believe that the training that we received as functional medicine doctors, what it does is, is the vast majority of us that have gotten into functional medicine went through our own health journey, went through our own health struggles, you'll find 80 90% of the functional medicine practitioners that are out there, have gone through some sort of health struggle on their own, or their family member had had a challenge. And they were a medical doctor or chiropractor of physio massage, or whatever it was that they were previously or they still have their degree and the answers weren't present within their profession, and they looked outside of the profession. And what this specifically does is it helps to create this exactly like you said, a boutique-style therapeutic journey, and it creates the way that that functional medicine doctors look at a person's case is not what are your symptoms, okay, you have x diagnosis y diagnosis, that day is the diagnosis, whatever it is, you likely have something that occurred. And then the question that we're always asking ourselves is why? Why did this happen? Why did this occur for this person at this time? What are the challenges that could have occurred? What are the triggers that might have occurred? We have to look back, we have to ask that question, why if we don't, we're never truly addressing the root cause of that issue.
Leanne: That's so sad that it has to be a completely different profession. Your doctor isn't necessarily going to do that. That's what you go to the doctor for is to find the root of the issue
Calla: So we've been told right?
Leanne: That seems to be the case.
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah, the system's really shifted. And it's sad to see because there are so many wonderful Docs out there who are just misguided and how they've been trained, or they've got so much information in their brain. Here's a fun little stat. There are now more than 10,000 diagnoses and the ICD 10 codes that doctors have to I like, ideally, memorize all of how much more information could they keep in their brain? They're not worried about why they're trying to figure out what it is right? What are those diagnoses for me? And the diagnosis isn't the end-all and be-all diagnosis? For me? It's an important piece of the puzzle that has legs stick for what's happening internally. But the diagnosis doesn't always have to be the answer. The answer is why did this diagnosis happen in this person, and stepping back and looking upstream of the issue? That's what I was taught by my mentor Sachin Patel. It's what I've been taught by numerous functional medicine practitioners that have just really helped me see, why did something happen to somebody? and answer that question?
Leanne: Well, that's what I really love. At the beginning of your book, you talked about the model of the health care system, operating under the belief that the body makes mistakes and cannot self-regulate, and that pushes them towards prescriptions and medications. Can you explain the danger of this and why it's incorrect?
Dr. Navaz Habib: I wouldn't say it's incorrect, but I would say misguided. The way that our bodies function is that they respond to whatever input we create, or whatever environment we are in. Our bodies are phenomenal, right? The human cell, if found in space, would be the greatest discovery of our lifetime. But here on Earth, we take it for granted. Right? The cell this thing that we've become has been so resilient to all of these environmental changes all of these biochemical and physical and emotional stressors that we've put on it, and yet we're still thriving. The human body doesn't make mistakes. The human body responds to inputs. And our job is to help identify what are those inputs? are they helping or are they hurting, and in certain cases, pharmaceuticals are necessary. In certain cases, drugs are going to be very beneficial in making sure that somebody doesn't hurt themselves or go down the path where they end up, not surviving. But there are very few medications that are truly addressing the root cause of a problem. And I'm not here to bash the pharmaceutical industry in any way. I just think that there is there's a misguided thing here that doctors of medicine don't just have to prescribe medicine, they have to look at the lifestyle, they have to look at the person holistically. And I think doctors are overworked, they're given so much responsibility, they're given the responsibility of 100 patients a day that they have to see, they don't have the ability to put enough attention to any single person to be able to timeline out their health challenges, or to be able to help figure out what things that this person can do overtime. And that's where functional medicine comes in. Because it closes the gap on the stressed-out seeing 100 patients a day type of Doctor, I see six in a day if I'm busy. Like I spend the time I spend 30 to 60 minutes with a person talking through their challenges coaching them through some of the changes identifying where I see a need for support. And I helped create said changes, make recommendations, whether nutritional lifestyle supplement, like whatever it is that I see that we can add in naturally and easily. And the key is empowerment here, right? We're not looking to just tell the person what they have to do. We're looking to empower them to do it themselves. I'll sit down with every single person in my first call, and 95% of them have seen the matrix. I'll say I'm Morpheus, and you're Neo. You're doing the work. I'm just here to guide you. It's up to you. And at the end of the day, that's what the doctor's job truly is. I remember this one quote, I loved this quote, it says, "A doctor's job is to distract the mind while the body does the healing." I don't remember where it came from. But it really guides the way that I practice and the way that I talk to people and the way that I approach any situation with a client. I'm here to help ease your stress so that your body can figure out what it needs to do.
Leanne: I want to backtrack for a second because we talked about someone who had experienced trauma or spinal cord injury. What about for people who haven't necessarily had any sort of, external, real traumatic experience? What are ways that that that person would know that they have less than optimal vagus nerve function?
Dr. Navaz Habib: It's a great question. The key most important thing is if you're not going to the bathroom regularly, if you have inflammatory issues going on, or if you have chronic pain, those are probably the top three that are linked directly to Vegas nerve dysfunction. Essentially, if your body is not functioning optimally, to some degree, your vagus nerve is not going to be thriving. And so there are tools out there that we can use to help identify whether or not the vagus nerve is functioning really well or not the primary tool, the primary measure that's used by most people is heart rate variability. So HRV is not a marker of heart rate. So heart rate means beats per minute, in one minute, my heart beats 60 times approximately. Okay? But heart rate variability measures the time in milliseconds between beats of your heart, okay? The more variation we have, the stronger our Vagus Nerve is, and the reason for that is our heart gets innervation, both from the parasympathetic and the sympathetic, the parasympathetic comes through the vagus nerve. The sympathetic comes from a sympathetic nerve ganglion that comes across through the spinal cord. And they go to the heart, and they tell the heart to speed up or slow down to the sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate, it sends information to the heart and says 60 is not fast enough beat faster, we need more blood going to more places because we are stressed. So we need to send more oxygen, we need to send more blood to all of these organs. So the heart rate increases. The parasympathetic job is to say, Nope, chill out, slow down. And so it brings the heart rate down. Now, what's really cool about this is the sympathetic innervation is constant. It's constantly saying Up, up, up up, the parasympathetic is saying, down, down, and it's slow, and it's rhythmic. And so what happens is, if we've measured those times, in milliseconds of beats of the or between the beats of our heart, those times can vary. Okay? If our heart is beating like rhythmic, completely rhythmic, where there's very little variation means a Vegas nerve innervation is not working well. means that the sympathetic is so heart rate variability where we have higher variation tells us that our vagus nerve is working better. So a lower number, something in the 20s, or 30s 20 to 30 milliseconds is something that would be considered a low heart rate variability, meaning there's not a lot of variation occurring, meaning that sympathetic innervation is high. When we get up into the 60s 70s 80s 90s, even the hundreds, that's a resilient person, that's somebody who has Vegas nerve activation, during that time significantly, and they're able to recover from some stressors because Vegas nervous pumping huge chunks of information to the heart to slow down, slow down. And it's creating this major variation in the time between those heartbeats. The best way to know this is to get some sort of tool where you can measure this, okay? The Oura ring is my absolute favorite. I've been using it for years now it's upstairs charging. Otherwise, I'm always wearing it. There are amazing tools called the Whoop band, which leads us to HRV. It's a measure of readiness. It's a measure of your resilience. And so I imagine when you get your Whoop score, your readiness score, whatever it is, that shows up on the Whoop, same as the Oura ring does, when your readiness is high, it's because your HRV is high. And so that's telling you, okay, you've recovered, your vagus nerve is on push yourself today. But then on other days, it says, No, you need time, your HRV is a bit lower, you're not doing so hot today, slow down, take today, easy. And so you don't push yourself that day, the whoop tells you that. So this is a great tool because it's a feedback mechanism for what's happening internally.
Leanne: That's what I love, too, because I used to be an athlete, and we were taught like, it doesn't matter how you feel, you got to push through it. It was more of an endurance sport. So I think I taught myself to ignore how I was feeling and the signs and that's why I loved having that subjective information, or sorry, objective information from the Whoop. To tell me like, No, no, you do need to slow down today. And in vice versa, you know, you wake up some days, and you're just not feeling it. But if your Whoop tells you recovered, then it's like, well just suck it up and go.
Dr. Navaz Habib: Like, the question is, should I push myself today, and if your body can't handle it, and you push yourself, you're actually doing more damage or not giving yourself that ability to be resilient and to be strong. And that's where the recovery piece of the vagus nerve really comes in.
Leanne: Yeah. So my favorite part of your book was, towards the end when you talk about all the different ways people can help activate their vagus nerve and apply it to their life. And, and I was amazed by a lot of it is you can do it right now, you don't need extra tools or to buy anything. Can you tell people how to how to activate it?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah. The reason I think it knows. The reason I go through my process of understanding the anatomy, understanding the physiology, understanding why the vagus nerve, what it's attaching to where it's going, is you can then use that information in the long term, right? So the things that are going to stress us out, are those physical, biochemical, emotional, and psychological stressors that we have. That's what's going to push the vagus nerve down, that's going to push our HRV level down. The things that are going to boost it are the things that the vagus nerve is connected to, that we have control over. We don't have autonomy, we don't have conscious control of our digestion or our liver. So you can't just do liver and do this doesn't work that way. Right. So that'd be nice to do, would be amazing, right? What we can do is address it using the muscles that are innervated by the vagus nerve. And some of the organs that are innervated by the vagus nerve. So the first one, the most important one where everybody in the world needs to start is the breath. Controlling our breath is the single strongest way to shift your state. Okay, we can shift our state this is the coolest thing. This is pure empowerment for anybody out there who thinks they can't do this. You can shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic in three seconds. Literally. Slow down your breath. Take a breath using your diaphragm. big belly breath. This is something that's taught to us in yoga, I love to have my patients do this. I have them put one hand on their chest, one hand on their belly, slow down, close their eyes, take a deep breath and make sure that the only hand that's moving is the one that's on their belly. If the hand that's on your chest is moving, that means you're using your chest muscles, your accessory breathing muscles, even probably your traps. Why so many people have tight traps and upper back muscles is often because they're breathing with these muscles. Not just because we're in our crouched crappy laptop and cell phone positions. But because we're not breathing correctly, we haven't learned or relearned to breathe with our diaphragm. If you've ever watched a baby breathe, I have a four-year-old and an eight-month-old. So the best thing in the world for me was when they were calm and relaxed when they were babies, just watching their breathing happen and all you're seeing is their chest is not moving at all. It's just their belly, rising and falling. That's something that we have forgotten to do. We have forgotten as we grow older, even my four-year-old at this point has shifted her breathing to chest breathing. We have to slowly shift it back to diaphragmatic breathing. So hands on the chest, head on the belly, and only the belly should be moving out with expansion. And in with the exhale, that's a sign that we're then using the diaphragm. Here's an awesome little trick or a little tool, tell somebody to take a deep breath, and then say, okay, breathe in deeper. If you can breathe in deeper, it means you weren't using your diaphragm in the first place, your diaphragm continues to expand it continues, to push, which is really important. So diaphragmatic breathing, no question about it, like three deep diaphragmatic breaths will shift your state from sympathetic to parasympathetic immediately, it's so fast. That's something that we can use. So you're feeling stressed out, something is up, you're about to have a big meal, shift your state into that rest and digest state use three deep breaths. Here's the other really cool thing about this when we're breathing with our diaphragm, it's not simply just creating that vacuum response within our thorax for our lungs to expand and fill with air, the diaphragm sits right on top of our stomach. Our liver or gallbladder is just below that our pancreas and our intestines. When it expands and contracts, it's massaging and moving all of the organs below. When that happens, we're creating movement, we're creating motion, we're actually promoting positive detoxification and digestion and stomach function and gallbladder function and vagus nerve function because the diaphragm is doing the job of physically moving those organs. It's reminding them that they're alive. When we breathe with our chest and not with their diaphragm. We're not getting any emotion underneath there. And so these organs are like, Okay, well, if we're not in parasympathetic because I'm not using my diaphragm, then these organs are neat and neat of being turned on so the vagus nerve can turn off. We're not in digestion mode. This is an issue with the drive-thru culture. And this convenience, eating culture is we're often feeding in a rush we're scarfing down our food, we're shoveling food into our mouth, rather than taking a moment and slowing down. That will help to shift our ability to digest the breath is so important understanding that if we take those breaths, optimally calmly relaxed, I even saw the email that you guys send out before our podcast, I love it. Take a deep breath and tell yourself that you can do this.
Leanne: I should email that to myself.
Calla: We forget, you forget.
Dr. Navaz Habib: That's exactly right. And I loved it because it was exactly the right moment of saying, Okay, you've got this. And that's that deep breath is shifting us into that parasympathetic zone where you can actually show up, and you're sending more blood flow to your forebrain to your prefrontal cortex. So you can think more clearly. When you take those deep breaths. So the breath no question about it. Top number one reason or tool to use to activate the vagus nerve.
Leanne: You talk about a whole list of things. Calla, you'd like this one Singing in your car.
Calla: Yeah, I can do that one. You lost me with the cold showers. I was reading through that. Everyone's trying to convert me. I'm not there yet. I'm trying.
Leanne: I've been trying for a year now, Dr. Habib. I'm not giving up.
Dr. Navaz Habib: Don't give up. It's totally worth it.
Leanne: I haven't given up yet.
Calla: I've done it a few times. I'm not opposed. But yeah. Not something I'm like jumping to do every day. That's for sure. Convince me, here's your time.
Dr. Navaz Habib: So let's say, for example, you want to build muscles. You do squatting, for example, okay? You're squatting bodyweight. Phenomenal. Great. How do you up that? How do you make squatting more difficult? How do you get stronger? What do you have to do? You have to probably add extra weight on top of that. Throw a bar on your back then add some extra weight on top of that. You have to add extra stress to the job that you're already doing. This is what cold is to breathe. Cold is the extra weight on breathing because cold is stress. You're just emotionally you're like, I don't want a cold shower ever. It never gets easier. Awesome, because when you finish it, you're like, Yeah, I got this.
Calla: Ok, Now I get it.
Leanne: Clearly, I wasn't explaining it well.
Dr. Navaz Habib: It's like bar and weight on their back when they're doing. So you might have added weight to your breath.
Calla: That's a beautiful way to look at it actually.
Dr. Navaz Habib: So like I had a bar, that's like ending your shower with 30 seconds of cold. Want to go to the next level jump in a nice bath.
Calla: Alright, let's not push it.
Dr. Navaz Habib: But there are levels to how do we do this? How do we promote this and that's exactly what the cold exposure really truly does.
Calla: Is that the same as cryotherapy?
Dr. Navaz Habib: That's exactly the same idea. And addition to this, the cold therapy stimulates fat and mitochondrial function throughout our body, because all of a sudden, we need to warm up, right. So let's say, for example, I live in Toronto. So the winters here are horrendous snow, colds, you name it. A car that's sitting outside in the cold needs some time to warm up, right, it's got to get stronger, it's got to turn on in the same way, cryotherapy is to your cells, like just warming up the car. So essentially what our body does, as if the cold is the input, our body turns on mitochondrial function, it turns on the body heat. And so it turns it up so that we have to function better. Mitochondrial function is the root of all cellular functions. If your cells aren't working, it's because your mitochondria aren't producing enough energy. cryotherapy turns the mitochondria on, it's like giving the body a boost or a jolt of just pure energy because we need to produce heat.
Calla: Wow, that's awesome.
Dr. Navaz Habib: So cold or cryotherapy and taking cold showers, work hand in hand because they promote mitochondrial function and they promote that deep diaphragmatic breathing while under stress. So hand in hand going there. So now you have a reason another
Calla: Okay, I'll give it another shot. I can't argue on that one.
Leanne: So I'll keep her accountable, don't worry. We talk a lot about sleep on this podcast and the importance of it. How does the quality of sleep affect the vagus nerve and vice versa?
Dr. Navaz Habib: In the same way that we go to the gym, the vagus nerve works out when we're sleeping. That's what is really when the vagus nerve is doing its real work. That anti-inflammatory function, the function of being able to control inflammation levels, which is another huge task that's taken on by the vagus nerve is done, essentially, while we're sleeping. So all the stressors that we experienced through the day, all of the challenges that come up, everything that kind of knocks our body down a little bit needs to be recovered, so that we can show up the next day. And that's where the vagus nerve is, is going to be functioning. So huge piece of Vagus and our function is the system that it controls called a cholinergic anti-inflammatory system. This helps to decrease inflammation within our gut, within our liver within our spleen, it helps to just use those organs using acetylcholine, which is the neurotransmitter used by the vagus nerve to down-regulate all of the inflammatory functions within our body. So if we don't sleep, well, we're not allowing the vagus nerve an opportunity to produce enough acetylcholine at those organs to reduce inflammation. This is what a good night's sleep means to the Vegas nerve. So oftentimes, and I'm sure you did it with your boob band as well, where my Oura ring every night, and I checked my HRV and I checked my readiness score in the morning. That's a sign of how strongly the vagus nerve was working at night. And you'll often see, as the night goes on your HRV level increases, you'll often if you take a look at the actual markers on the HRV. It'll go from 4050 up to 6070. In an ideal situation, as the night goes on, not just looking at the average, but you're looking at the pattern that it's happening. What that means is you're getting good, restorative sleep, you're actually turning your vagus nerve on and as the night goes on, it's getting stronger and stronger and stronger. That's an ideal situation.
Calla: That's that recovery component.
Dr. Navaz Habib: Yeah. Directly linked to that recovery component.
Calla: Do you see kids who maybe haven't don't have a vagus nerve that has been activated? What are some of their symptoms? Like? Is that even a thing?
Dr. Navaz Habib: Sadly, it's much more of a thing now than it ever has been before.
Dr. Navaz Habib: What's the best way to put this? Kids are socialized in a different way than we are. The stress levels that kids are under now are much more than when we were kids. We were much more than our parents were and they were much more than their parents were. The stressors are different. We're under constant biochemical bombardment, right? The average baby right now in their fetal blood has more than 200 toxins found within there. They're like umbilical cord blood. Yeah, that's stress. That's biochemical stress. We expect our kids to get the 90s and hundreds in school, that's emotional stress, right? They're sitting way more than they ever were, they're not playing outside as much as they were sitting is a stressor sitting is the new smoking, right. So that's a stressor on our body. They're sitting here staring at screens, like we kind of are, and I do my best to get outside as much as I can. But this is something that that they're built into. And so I see it way more often than I need to I have a patient that came in today, who was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age two. Like it's, it's crazy that things like this are even happening. It's just nuts. Obviously, the patient didn't come in mum brought her in. These are sadly, more common than we realize that kids have autoimmune conditions before they're teenagers. The kids are experiencing the stressors and Vegas nerve dysfunction at such an early age, right? Even my four-year-old isn't breathing properly right now. And so these are signs that they're under a lot of pressure. And so what we need to do is do our best to eliminate some of those stressors, get them outside, get some fresh air, let them run around, let them experience different things outside, right. Like, I honestly think that outdoor time is probably one of the best things you can do for your kids. And it's because it also gets you outside. And it also gets you away from the screens. And it gets you away from sitting on your couch or at your desk all day. And these last 18-19 months have been absolutely horrendous for our social lives, right? We're talking to people on the computer all the time, I'm staring at my screen all the time all day, being able to get outside and socialize and be with others that actually turns on our vagus nerve laughter and social communication and social function are directly linked to HRV. Which is really cool. So going out for dinner with friends or going to a park with your kids and letting them run around. We do this at least two or three times a week with my kids as we let them go and do stuff outside with other kids. And we're safe about it. We do what we need to do to be safe about it. But if we completely shut the world out, and we increase our physical and emotional stress because of that, we're affecting our kids' mental and biological health. And so I see this happening way more often than it should.
Do you have any examples of success stories from patients that you've helped connect to and activate their makes nerves?
Dr. Navaz Habib
Yeah, absolutely. I've been working now as a Functional Medicine Practitioner for about seven years. That's when my journey really truly began. And so I immediately shifted towards this and me think through a couple so I've got one that sticks out at the top of my head, professional CrossFit athlete, a really great friend of mine as well, who was dealing with emotional issues, trouble performing at a high level -just he was again a performer for many years, and then just fell off track couldn't perform at the level that he ever wanted to tons of physical injuries. We activated Vegas nerve using a lot of these tools. So we used the muscles here to do gargling and gag reflex, which is going to help stimulate the vagus nerve. We checked what was going on with a couple of functional lab tests internally at a couple of parasites. We declared those out we had to address this neurotransmitter balance as well. So we actually boosted his serotonin and dopamine levels. And within four months, he was back to competing at an incredibly high level, his social media following tripled, and he's like flying even if he isn't going to the games. He's back to being the competitive, driven person that he Used to be, which is just huge for somebody who was performing at such a high level and just had this drop-off. Contrast that to a completely different scenario where we had 64, I believe 64-year-old lady from California who was dealing with significant bloating and digestive dysfunction, and major challenges with digestion overall, she was a business owner, she had all of these other stressors that she had going on, or kids were near wildfires during the time, like there was a lot of emotional and other challenges going on. We connected her through functional lab testing to identify exactly what was going on in the gut, which bacteria which parasites, what was happening, using functional lab testing, we take that information, we plug it into the protocols that we talk about that we use, depending on what we find on our testing. And with regards to boosting neurotransmitter function, digestive issues were gone in three months completely, like 100% gone. And then to maintain it. That's where the vagus nerve function really comes in. Right? So not only are we just trying to get rid of these, the root cause of the challenge, but we want this to be a