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You wouldn't think that everyday bathroom functions could have a profound short-term effect on the heart. But the truth is that simple defecation or urination can alter heartbeat enough to cause loss of consciousness.

The vagus nerve extends the medulla oblongata of the brain not quite down to the anus. It controls parasympathetic activity in the throat, lungs, and digestive tract. You can think of parasympathetic activity as the opposite of "flight or fight" activity. Vagal stimulation keeps your heart, lungs, stomach, and bowel at normal levels. When you don't have enough vagus nerve activity, these organs may become overactive. When you have too much, they can become underactive.

Let's start with the problems of vagal under-stimuation. This can be manifested as tachycardia, racing heart. Or it might show up as queasy stomach or digested food moving too fast through your gastrointestinal tract so you want to eat more and more.

When you have these problems, you can achieve a short-term fix with vagal maneuvers. What do you do?

  • Press down hard against your pelvic floor muscles. You don't have to push like you are having a baby (which may be kind of hard for guys to emulate), but a little downward pressure on your abdomen will help. If you have ever had to press hard to assist bowel movement, that's the right sort of pressure.
  • Cough. When you cough, you shorten the amount of time you inhale. When you shorten the amount of time you inhale, you send your brain a message that maybe you aren't inhaling enough and there shortly won't be enough oxygen for your tissues. Your vagus nerve will "hit the brakes" on your heartbeat to conserve oxygen.
  • Splash yourself in the face with cold water. Your vagus nerve responds to this as if you were drowning. It slows down your heart to conserve oxygen. Of course, taking a plunge into an icy pool also works, but there can be more physiological changes than your body is ready for.
  • Hold your breath, or just focus on breathing out slowly and breathing in quickly. The longer you have air going out, the more slowly your circulatory system will send oxygen around your body. You don't have actually to deprive yourself of oxygen when you do this. You can breathe in deep, but you need to breathe in fast and immediately start exhaling.

What if you have the opposite problem? What if you are among the many people who tend to pass out during bowel movement or even during urination? You simply take the opposite approach.

  • Reduce pressure on your abdomen. If you are in the middle of bowel movement, don't rush it. Wait between pushes. If this is a recurring problem, use a stool softener like Sur-Fak so you don't have to press hard during defecation and don't pass out on the toilet. Or learn to use a squatting position as is practiced in Asia and the Middle East.
  • Suppress coughs, and breathe out slowly to the count of eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, let the air out slowly. Then breathe in, deeply, but to the count of four. One, two, three, four. This exercise tells your brain to send a message through your vagus nerve for your heart and digestive tract to slow down. This can also help with diarrhea caused by irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Put your hands in cold water. Your heart will speed up to send them blood to warm them up.
  • If you tend to pass out on the toilet, let it be a slow and easy process. Take longer than usual. Don't force anything. It's better to spend extra time in the bathroom than it is to wake up on the floor.

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