Why do so many singers talk about music getting them through hard times? Having an outlet for those difficult feelings is certainly part of it, but perhaps there’s another kind of tone at work in the healing process – vagal tone.
The Vagus Nerve
Its name means “wanderer” and it’s super important to your health. The vagus nerve starts in the brain and, like a vagabond, meanders down through the digestive system, hitting the heart, lungs, liver, gallbladder, esophagus, ears, tongue, fertility organs, spleen, larnyx, stomach, intestines, pancreas, and ureter (not in that particular order, but you get the idea – it goes a lot of places).
One of the vagus nerve’s main jobs is to stimulate the parasympathetic mode of your nervous system – the one that takes over when the “fight-or-flight” state, AKA the sympathetic mode, is not in use.
The Importance of Strong Vagal Tone
Strong vagal tone allows the body to spend enough time switched over to parasympathetic mode. Parasympathetic mode is a pretty big deal because it allows for:
- good digestion
- proper detoxification
- reduced inflammation
- heart health
- sexual arousal
- strong adrenals
But if you’re anything like me, you tend to spend too much time in fight-or-flight mode, leaving less time for the parasympathetic system to work. Life can get stressful, and sometimes it seems like the more stress you already feel, the more stress will come your way.
Weak Vagal Tone
What are some symptoms that can result from weak vagal tone or spending too much time in sympathetic mode? They include:
- low stomach acid (also known as heartburn and acid reflux)
- poor absorption of B12
- irritable bowel syndrome
- inadequate bile production
- poor blood flow to kidneys
- higher blood pressure
- blood sugar issues
- greater risk of heart disease
- higher resting heart rate
- frequent urination
- limited capacity for orgasms
Here’s an awesome list of ways to increase parasympathetic activity and strengthen your vagal tone, including meditation, acupuncture, and fasting, to name a few. But I want to focus on just one of the ways to increase vagal tone because it’s so darn wonderful.
Singing Your Way to Better Vagal Tone
My absolute favorite way to work on my vagal tone is also my favorite activity next to eating: singing. Might I recommend your car as a wonderful spot for singing therapy?
If I’m commuting, I’m either listening to a great podcast, or I’m singing at the top of my lungs.
There’s a scientific reason why singing feels so good – and particularly the “at the top of your lungs” singing: It stimulates the vagus nerve and improves vagal tone. Which means that singing is a form of free therapy which can improve:
- your heart health
- your blood pressure
- your digestion
- depression or anxiety
- possibly even your sex life
Nobody says you have to even be a good singer to get the health benefits of singing. Remember that quote about how the woods would be very silent “if no birds sang there except those that sang best”? Some birds don’t even have pretty voices, but they don’t let that stop them.
Bonus points for singing with groups of other people – like joining a choir if that’s your thing, or belting it out in church or at a concert. It turns out the vagus-strengthening effect is even stronger if you’re singing with a group.
Add a Guitar for Even Better Results
I’ve always found playing guitar and singing to be even more satisfying than singing along with a recording (don’t get me wrong, nothing compares to some Beyoncé in the car, but still). And according to my husband, holding a guitar and feeling the vibrations from the strings can help you sing better because it allows you to feel the notes as well as hear them, requiring less effort to stay on pitch.
If you’ve got a guitar handy, here are a few uplifting songs that are not hard to play on guitar and feel great to sing. I’m also going to include one of my own songs in this list – Strawberry Summer – and I’m including the lyrics and guitar chords to print out. Strawberry Summer is technically about a miscarriage I had before my son came along (Strawberry was our nickname for that baby), but really it’s about hope. You could very easily make the lyrics about your own story.
Uplifting Songs to Play on Guitar
Do you have any favorite, uplifting songs to play on guitar? Let me know in the comments!
Don’t play guitar (yet)? I’ll bet that if you asked around, you could very easily borrow one from a friend or family member and teach yourself to play. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of tutorials on YouTube (here’s a great one about how to tune a guitar, for example). I am not a good guitar player AT ALL, but that has not stopped me from playing songs I love in the privacy of my own home, and eventually writing my own, creating an album full of my own songs.
Make Yourself a Vagal Mix
In addition to having a repertoire of songs to play on guitar, you might also make yourself a mix for the car with all the songs you love to sing most. Especially the ones you can sing at the top of your lungs. Classics like “The Story” by Brandi Carlisle, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper, and “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson. I’d love to know your favorites in this category, too, so please comment!
Singing as Therapy
You can sing your way to better mental and physical health, one song at a time. It’s a free prescription for improved parasympathetic action and increased vagal tone – plus it just feels great!