Vagal Tone – the Performance Bio Hack for Athletes

Have you ever switched your focus on what you are eating to how you are digesting?  Are you really absorbing the nutrients from those so called “performance foods”, recovery foods or “anti-inflammatory” foods?  I am not suggesting that what you are eating is not a healthy option for you, as each of is bio-individual.  The amount of carbohydrates to protein to fat ratios varies.  I have learned about an area that we don’t pay attention to very often, if at all.  Are you familiar with the VAGAL NERVE?  Now I am not talking about female body parts.  The vagal nerve is one of the ten cranial nerves which is also termed the “wandering” nerve.  The vagal nerve oversees many body autonomic functions by communicating nerve impulses to almost every organ in your body.  Not only is the brain sending messages to the gut via the vagal nerve, it is also sending messages back to the brain (i.e. inflammation) if in the right nervous system.  The brain and the gut communicate via the vagal nerve.

How tone is your vagal nerve?

If you want to improve your fueling strategy in your triathlon training program, on race day and in your recovery, then you may also want to strengthen your vagal nerve!  Why you say?  Well as my mentor John Tjenos says “we are not what we eat.  We are the nutrients that our body absorbs”.

What happens if we don’t completely digest the food we eat?  Even if our meals are filled with nutrient dense, organic whole foods, if we are not able to breakdown our food to fuel our exercise and help us repair then we are missing an essential part of digestion.  It is one element, in what I call “The WHOLESTIC Method” training program.  The WHOLESTIC Method is digestion, but all eight elements impact and influence the other…therefore are equally important to training the WHOLE you for life and sports!  The eight elements of The WHOLESTIC Method are:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Exercise
  3. Sleep
  4. Stress
  5. Movement
  6. Digestion/Gut Health
  7. Hydration
  8. Happiness

Stress impairs our digestive process.  Well digestion is a parasympathetic nervous system process (PNS) as we know is as the “rest, digest and repair” nervous system.  We are to be in the PNS 80% of the time and the other 20% of the day we are to be in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) also known as the “fight or flight” nervous system.  Now what percentage of the day do you think you are in the PNS vs. the SNS??  What about when you are eating?  Resting?  Sleeping?  We should be in the parasympathetic nervous system when eating… but rarely do we sit, relax, and focus on eating a meal as they do in most areas of Europe.  If you are struggling with your performance in triathlons and life- then maybe you should dig deeper to find your root cause.  Often it isn’t too difficult to locate your “red flags” and other triggers if you work with a holistic life coach or nutritional therapy practitioner.  We all love to LIVE life as a RACE and forget it is a journey.

If you are a typical type-A personality, over-doer in life, then you may struggle with taking time out of your weekday for a relaxing meal and unplugging!  What is the difference?  Eating in the parasympathetic nervous system versus the sympathetic nervous system.  Digestion is turned OFF when you are in the sympathetic nervous system.  We are living life as a race leading us to be in the sympathetic nervous system 80% of the day instead of 20%, causing a domino effect of health problems, therefore creating a weak link our performance.

Our vagal nerve needs to be ‘strong’ in order to help in the digestion process.  Remember we get our amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals from the food we digest and breakdown which help build enzymes, hormones, muscles, bones, blood, and our gut biome.  The vagal nerve is also a detection system- alerting the brain of any inflammation in the body, if we allow the brain to be in right nervous system!

The parasympathetic nerves come from the cranial nerves and includes the “wandering” vagal nerve.  The PNS nerves perform the following digestive functions:


  • Stimulates the activity of the stomach
  • Inhibits the release of glucose
  • Stimulates the release of the gallbladder to release bile needed to digest fat)
  • Stimulates the activity of the intestines
  • Triggers peristalsis- which helps prevent constipation
  • Triggers enzyme production in the pancreas (pancreatic enzymes to breakdown carbs, protein, and fats)

In return the gut sends messages back to the brain via the vagal nerve to inform:

    • Signals if satiated
    • Signals if hungry
    • Need for more stomach acid (HCL), enzymes, bile, and peristalsis

The sympathetic nerves just do the opposite-  including

  • Inhibits the activity of the stomach
  • Stimulates the release of glucose (increasing blood sugar levels)
  • Inhibits gallbladder function (inhibiting the release of bile for fat digestion)
  • Inhibits the activity of the intestines

We need to support our vagal nerve to improve our digestion and gut health if we want to improve performance since good digestion leads a healthy gut and a healthy gut results in reduced inflammation and improved our immune system (70% immune system is in the gut!)  I am sure we all want to know we are fueling ourselves for optimal performance for training and racing as well as recovery, but how do we know?

STOP, pause, slow inhales, long exhales and reset.  This is what I remind myself and my clients… take some deep breathes, long exhales, focus and unplug.  I have also been trying a technique to strengthen my vagal nerve or rather improve my vagal tone.  Simple techniques as gargling, humming, singing, cold showers, meditation, mindful yoga, connecting with loved ones and long slow exhales.  Another new energetic medicine technique is using “Vagal Tone”- an energetic essential oil blend designed to improve digestion, gut health, detoxification, and brain health by helping you shift to a parasympathetic state and strengthen the vagal nerve.  Also, you can measure your heart rate variability (HRV) to measure your nervous system activity and vagal tone as a higher HRV relates to a stronger vagal tone.

Our digestion is as important as our diet. To nourish ourselves, we must support our digestion, but also our brain, as the brain communicates to the gut and the gut communicates back to the brain.   Anti-inflammation is key to our bodies repair, recovery, and regeneration, but it doesn’t happen if we are not in the parasympathetic nervous system more often during the day and all night- healthy digestion system, gut health and therefore brain health!

If you really want to improve your performance, including in daily life, then I suggest improving your ‘vagal tone’ for the ultimate bio-hack.  Order these energetic oils from my studio in Bellevue- 

Debbie Potts is a trainer, speaker, acclaimed triathlete, podcast host (The WHOLE Athlete) and an author of “LIFE IS NOT A RACE.” She has been in the fitness industry for over twenty-five years and a competitive endurance athlete for twenty years.  Along her journey, she has accomplished many goals including being nominated as one of the top one hundred best trainers in the U.S. by Men’s Journal in 2004 and 2005 as well as participating in fifteen Ironman Triathlons – five of them were the Hawaii World Ironman Championship.  Debbie has owned and operated her own fitness studio in Bellevue Washington since 2010 to offer an “all in one” fitness studio – now including The WHOLESTIC Method Nutritional Therapy program to transform the WHOLE person from the inside out.   

Debbie Potts


Fitness Forward Studio, LLC

Nutritional Therapy Practitioner