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Integrative Medical Retreat Case Study – Health, Happiness and The Vagus Nerve


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By Reine DuBois, Clinical Director and Hannah Hempenstall, Wellness Writer

Feeling lost, lonely and lacklustre? Maybe it’s not all in your head…

Picture this: it’s first thing in the morning and you’ve just brushed your teeth. Next? You stick your toothbrush down your throat.

The very idea of that may make you gag. But for Leonie*, 54, that process (which coincidentally is performed in order to make her gag) is a necessity and a very real consequence to years of not listening to her body (or not realising what it was saying), then coasting all the way to a dramatic burnout that left her unable to work for over a year.

More than anything, Leonie hopes you don’t have to experience the same.

Diagnosed with loss of vagal tone, Leonie’s “I’ve got to do it all” belief, teamed with 5 years of workplace bullying is what left her vagus nerve in tatters.

“I lost a year of my life completely” she says as she describes the final ‘brownout’ that occurred from her gradual decline of vagal tone. “The year before, I didn’t have any true productivity or fun or love of life.”

It’s a predicament that many people (women especially) can relate to.

What happened to Leonie?

Leonie had been running a very successful marketing business but a spate of bullying over a period of 5 years had begun to devolve her love of life. “I constantly gave so much of myself and wanted to help everyone else so badly,” says Leonie. “I didn’t know I was in burnout.”

Had she known more about the vagus nerve, she may have seen it coming. “When I look back now I can see it was a slow decline,” she says. “It started with headaches and migraines. My body ached all over and I had fatigue.” Her solution? “I pushed through as much as I could.” But as you can imagine, that didn’t work.

“Eventually, I started to feel down a lot. I lost a lot of the excitement for what I was doing and found it hard to be in the work environment. This was out of character for me as I was incredibly social and really enjoyed all the meetings and events we went too.”

Seeing It Coming

Leonie had a stream of other symptoms including foggy head, waking up feeling weak and shaky, palpitations, panic attacks and severe indigestion. On top of that she experienced sciatica and allergic reactions: from itchy throat and eyes to shortness of breath, skin crawling and sneezing.

It would be easy to look at her life and make a judgement that the signs of burnout were all there.

But, as is a common pattern for most of us, Leonie was driven by an unconscious pattern. Hers was, “people pleasing.” The positive side of people pleasing is ‘serving others’, which sounds admirable, but when being of service involves stepping over your own needs it is actually detrimental; especially to the vagus nerve. Especially when you feel you have nobody to turn to.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus, or pneumogastric nerve, oversees an array of motor and sensory functions. It controls our mood, heart rate, immune response and digestion. It’s also known as the gut-brain link and is said to be one of the most prolific nerves in the enteric system.

According to a study published in Frontiers of Psychiatry, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is considered a treatment for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

But rather than a lesson in anatomy and physiology, the reason this is important is because the vagus nerve is vital to our mental wellbeing. And when it’s out of balance – or loses its ‘tone’, you’re in danger of heading towards a breakdown.

Signs The Vagus Nerve is Out of Balance

On an emotional level, good vagus tone presents as resilience, steady breath and good digestion. Conversely, if your resilience is diminished, you experience frequent palpitations and bloating, then the vagus nerve might be involved.

Signs of vagal nerve disruption

  • Lowered resilience

  • Frequent palpitations

  • Bloating

  • Inflammation

  • Negative moods

How to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally

  • Cold exposure (showers, ocean swim, cryotherapy etc)

  • Promote a gag reflex

  • Singing and laughter

  • Hugs

  • Reflecting on positive social connections

How The Health Lodge Can Help

The Health Lodge is a fairly unique proposition in Australia. In fact, it’s one of the only integrated wellness centres in the country where you can see a team of therapists with skills in General Practice medicine, psychiatry, osteopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, bio resonance, yoga, colonics (and more), all under one roof.

For Leonie, having a team of wellness practitioners working on her case has been key to her renewed health. “My business coach had been to see Reine (Integrated Naturopath and Clinical Director at The Health Lodge), and he felt I needed a more holistic approach to what was happening to me,” she says.

The path to healing was deciphered after extensive clinical testing. Leonie underwent a SIBO breath test, H-pylori breath test, endoscopy, colonoscopy, blood tests, a DUTCH test and stool tests as well as trialling multiple pharmaceuticals such as Nexium, Toxaprevent and antihistamines for choking. Unfortunately, none of the medications worked.

The tests revealed a multi-layered diagnosis that required delicate treatment and an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“It’s taken a year of treatment and has been a slow recovery as [The Health Lodge team] worked on me layer by layer,” says Leonie. “I feel like having all the testing gave me an all-round understanding of what was happening.”

“When so many systems in your body are breaking down it’s hard to have one test that gives you the full picture.”

It’s that full-service testing and multiple lifestyle changes that have seen Leonie’s health and spirits return. “I pace myself now,” she says with a sense of pride. “On the days when I feel good I feel amazing and I’m so appreciative of that.”

Luckily for Leonie, her mental health is on the rise; “I do 10 per cent of what I used to”.

That’s a mantra we would all do well to heed, but it’s not easy. So if you feel like your joy is slipping away and you can’t seem to regain a steady footing, take it from Leonie; “Sit down and talk to somebody.” Your vagus nerve will thank you.

If you’d like to talk to someone about your health and wellbeing, please call The Health Lodge on 02 6685 6445 and book in for a free 15 min chat today with one of our Integrative Medical Retreat case co-ordinators or schedule your appointment online today.

*Name has been changed. This blog features the views of the writer and is for educational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor or other qualified health practitioners before acting on information on this article, particularly if you have a medical condition, taking medication or if you are pregnant.

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