Emotional stress has been associated with faster progression of chronic kidney disease (CKD). This is because kidneys have both sympathetic and parasympathetic innervation. The sympathetic nervous system refers to the aspect of fight or flight, while the parasympathetic involves resting and digesting. In fact, acute stress can worsen kidney function, while relaxation practices can promote kidney health. Stimulating the vagus nerve, for example, can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, improve blood flow to the kidneys, and modulate inflammation in CKD. Here, we will discuss in detail vagus nerve exercises and natural ways to promote vagus nerve health for better kidney function.
Cold exposure, such as cold showers, has many benefits for kidney patients. It increases endorphins and fights off depression. It improves metabolism and circulation. Most importantly, it stimulates the vagus nerve and improves renal circulation. It may also soothe itchy skin which is common in CKD patients. In addition, cold showers help with post-workout muscle soreness.
The benefits of a cold shower begin when the water temperature dips to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is 40 degrees lower than the typical steamy shower. To take a cold shower, start with your usual hot shower, then turn the knob to cold at the end of your shower. Lower the temperature gradually at the end of your shower every day. The benefits start with thirty seconds under the cold water. Maximum benefits are reached in three minutes.
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Vagus nerve breathing exercises
Deep and slow breathing can activate the parasympathetic system. In fact, deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. It sends messages to the brain to calm down and relax by activating the vagus nerve which helps lower heart rate and blood pressure. There are various ways to perform deep breathing. Here, I will discuss the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
This technique uses belly breathing. It can be performed sitting or lying down as follows:
- Start by putting one hand on the belly and the other one on the chest.
- Take a deep slow breath from the belly while silently counting to 4. The chest should not move.
- Hold the breath while silently counting to 7.
- Breathe out completely while silently counting to 8.
- The process can be repeated 5 to 10 times until feeling relaxed.
Singing, humming, chanting, and gargling
These activities have also been shown to improve heart rate variability and can also activate the vagus nerve because it is connected to the vocal cords. These benefits can be achieved by 10 minutes of singing, humming, chanting, or gargling every day.
The fact that probiotics have been found to support stimulation of the vagus nerve is another piece of evidence for the importance of the gut-brain axis. Healthy microbiota produce short-chain fatty acids, such as butyric acid, which can activate the vagus nerve and send messages from the gut to the brain. It is highly beneficial to get most probiotics through diet. However, if supplements are used, it is recommended to use good quality broad-spectrum probiotics.
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Meditation has been found to increase vagal tone and positive emotions. Meditation for 10-15 minutes is a great way to start the day, manage stress, and stimulate the vagus nerve. There are many ways to meditate and many types of meditations. Mindfulness meditation is the most tested in kidney patients. It has been demonstrated to improve the quality of life, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce sympathetic overactivity,improve sleep, and improve blood pressure.
To practice mindfulness meditation such as Benson’s relaxation technique, follow these steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position or on a meditation cushion.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your shoulders and muscles.
- Focus on breathing.
- Say a word with every exhalation. A positive word like “gratitude” can be used. As the mind starts racing, which distracts from the breath, the person returns to the word.
Practicing this every day will improve the experience and compound the benefits with consistency.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Among the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are increased vagal activity. The best way to reap the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is by eating fatty fish twice per week, but if that is not an option due to protein restrictions or dietary choices, supplementation is an option. Other food sources include nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flaxseed. It is important that the supplement contains enough eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are the most powerful omega-3 fatty acids. The dose is at least 500-1,000 mg of EPA-DHA three times a day.
One of the best vagal tone exercises is exercise itself. Exercise is linked to better mental health and stimulation of the vagus nerve. It may be one of the most underutilized yet effective interventions for the prevention and treatment of kidney disease. It has been shown to reduce the risk of CKD, help with blood pressure and glucose control, and improve health-related quality of life. Exercise also induces a positive influence on mental health, mood, and stress levels by stimulating the vagus nerve.
The best type of exercise is the one that you do. What I mean by that is don’t get discouraged by trying to find the perfect type of exercise and do anything that works best for you. Having said that, studies on exercise in CKD have included resistance training and aerobic activities that use large muscle groups continuously such as walking, cycling, and jogging.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) offers superior benefits in individuals with metabolic diseases such as diabetic kidney disease. Studies of HIIT in CKD have shown that it is a safe and feasible option for individuals with CKD.
Those who are new to exercising should start slowly and gradually get to 20-30 minutes of strenuous exercises 5-6 days a week. It is best to alternate between aerobic exercises and resistance training. For those who are 50 years of age or older, it is important to check with your provider before engaging in strenuous exercises.
Massage therapy has also been found to be associated with improved vagal tone. The stimulation of pressure receptors leads to an increased vagal activity which, in turn, seems to mediate the diverse benefits of massage therapy. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data suggested that moderate pressure massage was represented in the part of the brain involved in stress and emotion regulation.
Socializing and laughing
Finally, increased social connection and laughing have been linked to increased positive emotions. Increased
positive emotions, in turn, produced increases in vagal tone, which puts the body in a rest and repair state.
The bottom line
Stimulating the vagus nerve can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, improve renal blood flow, and modulate inflammation in CKD. Improve kidney health using these natural techniques to turn on the vagus nerve and turn off stress: a cold shower, breathing exercises or meditation, singing or humming, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, exercise, massage, and social connection. Check out my 1-hour morning routine for kidney health that incorporates many of these techniques.