“Almost two years ago, I started feeling uncharacteristically exhausted for no apparent reason. My normal bedtime had always been around 10 or 11, but suddenly I couldn’t stay awake past 7. ‘Maybe that’s what happens after you turn 50,’ I thought. But then it started affecting my ability to work. I work at home as a freelance health writer, and I started nodding off at my desk, then curling up for a nap on my couch. ‘I must not have slept well,’ I told myself the first time it happened, but the naps quickly became a daily occurrence.
“I started scheduling interviews with story sources around the times of day when I knew I’d be more alert. I worried about being able to get my work done, and whether my fatigue would impact my livelihood.
I had made a career speaking to health experts, and I knew I ate right and took care of myself and shouldn’t be exhausted 24/7. So at my 2018 physical, I worked up the courage to mention the months of intrusive fatigue to my doctor. I worried I’d sound foolish for bringing up something as simple as being tired, but I opted to do so because I was becoming stressed about it. It was upsetting to not be able to stay awake to watch a movie with my family or worry that I’d doze in and out of conversations. My doctor reviewed my diet and lifestyle, checked my blood for anemia and thyroid issues, explored sleep disorders and more, then told me there was nothing wrong — there was no explanation for my fatigue.
“Coffee, tea, and energy drinks weren’t an option since I have a caffeine sensitivity. So I started splashing cold water on my face and neck, then doing jumping jacks to rev my energy enough to stay awake to work. But I continued to struggle, dragging myself through each day and anxious to pour myself into bed and go to sleep. My next annual physical was a repeat of the last. Leaving without answers, I thought I was doomed to yawning and napping my way through life.
Relief at Last
“I decided to take matters into my own hands and began looking into unexplained causes of fatigue. I found research that explained how the body’s vagus nerve acts as a communication pathway, sending signals between the brain and body, but that excessive stress impairs that network, which can lead to fatigue, brain fog, and sadness.
“Suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Just before my fatigue set in, I lost my beloved dog, who had been chronically sick for several years, and my husband and I were also coping with the prolonged illness of an elderly parent. Add in the stress of exhaustion and its impact on my ability to make a living, and I found myself in a vicious cycle of heightened and excessive stress.
Coincidentally, around that time, I was reading Lauren Chelec Cafritz’s book, Breath Love ($13.18, Amazon), for an article I was writing. It explained how ‘connecting’ your breaths by breathing continuously, instead of taking short pauses between each breath, releases stress. And since my vagus nerve research had taught me you can strengthen and tone the nerve with breathing strategies to better manage stress, I thought it was worth a try.
“With guidance from Lauren’s book, I sat at my desk and took a deep breath, filling my lungs until I couldn’t suck in an iota more of air. Then I slowly breathed out through my nose while squeezing my abs as if doing an abdominal crunch. I repeated the cycle five times and was amazed to feel an immediate sense of calm energy — totally different from a jolt of caffeine. I had to really focus on this new way of breathing, but I could see it was making a difference, so I repeated the cycle a few hours later.
“Unbelievably, I made it through an entire day without leaning back to ‘rest my eyes’ or catch a snooze. And after doing the exercises three or four times daily over the next few days, my energy was back!
“I still begin my day with several deep breaths, and I rely on a deep breath or two midday or anytime I need a boost of energy or stress relief. And since a strong vagus nerve also depends on exercise and eating well, I’ve kept up those healthy habits. Now, I easily work full days, and my family no longer teases me that I’ll be asleep before the opening credits of a movie. I feel like a new person!”
—Gina Roberts-Grey, 52
Is a vagus nerve malfunction causing your symptoms?
If you’re often fatigued and have two or more of the symptoms below, an out-of-whack vagus nerve may be to blame.
- Never feeling full
- Brain fog
- Low libido
- Frequent urination
- High blood pressure
- Gut issues like IBS
- Blue moods
- Achy joints
For some doctor-approved tips for optimizing your vagus nerve function right at home, check out this article!
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.