Understanding the Relationship with Food through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory

Author: Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RDN, CDN

Introduced by Dr. Stephen Porges in the 1990s, polyvagal theory (PVT) describes how the longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, affects our internal states, our emotional regulation, and our capacity for connection. The vagus nerve exits the base of the brain and wanders down through the body, touching the heart, lungs, and digestive organs. It receives and communicates information from internal and external environments in a way that can be interpreted, understood, and used to move toward greater stability, safety, and wellbeing, particularly if paired with a mindfulness practice.

Core Concepts of PVT
Three core concepts of PVT include neuroception, hierarchy, and co-regulation. Neuroception is how our nervous systems protect us by constantly scanning the environment for signs of safety, danger, and life threat. Though neuroception occurs unconsciously, it can be brought into consciousness through mindfulness practices that hone interoception and bodily attunement.

Hierarchy refers to the three states of the autonomic nervous system; they exist like a ladder with dorsal vagal at the bottom, sympathetic in the middle, and ventral vagal at the top. As you move from bottom to top, you travel from the oldest iteration of the nervous system to its most recent evolution. 
Dorsal vagal, the oldest part of the nervous system, shuts down or becomes immobilized when faced with a life threat. You might envision an opossum playing dead when she senses a predator, or you might imagine going into energy conservation mode. Dorsal is associated with feelings of collapse, withdrawal, sleepiness, and low energy.

In contrast to the immobilization of the dorsal vagal state, the sympathetic nervous system protects us through mobilization into what is commonly referred to as fight or flight. This means that when feeling unsafe, the body unconsciously shifts into the mode of running away from the threat or of fighting for survival. There can be two distinct channels of the sympathetic nervous system: one associated with anxiety and the other with anger. Being in the sympathetic state can feel racy, stressed, restless, jittery, and explosive.

Ventral vagal, the top of the polyvagal hierarchy, is the most recent iteration of the autonomic nervous system. The ventral vagal state recognizes that it is belonging to a group and connecting with others that protects us. We became pack animals who existed in community with others. Ventral feels calm, curious, and engaged.

The power of becoming familiar with your three states is recognizing them when you are there, understanding what triggers you into the dysregulated states of dorsal and sympathetic, and learning what brings you out of those dysregulated states and into the regulated ventral state. These skills can be particularly useful when dealing with the dysregulating aspects of diet culture and understanding what role food plays in nervous system regulation.  

In addition to neuroception and the autonomic hierarchy, the final core concept within PVT is co-regulation. This refers to the ways in which our nervous systems interact and either regulate one another – help them anchor into that safely connected state of ventral vagal – or dysregulate one another, triggering them into a sympathetic or dorsal state. This is part of the power of working with an individual or a group in healing your relationship with food and body. 

Becoming Familiar with Your States
The first stage in becoming familiar with your own autonomic hierarchy is characterizing the physical and emotional experience of being in each of the three states. This allows you to notice and name where you are in real time or reflect on certain situations and identify what was going on in your nervous system. Here is an exercise to help you begin this exploration. As an example, the following describes my own embodied experience of my three states: 


Physical sensations: Open sensation in chest, no tension in the jaw, abdomen relaxed, facial muscles relaxed, body feels relaxed 
Emotional experience: Interested in my experience and in others’ experience, content and satisfied, able to work with difficulty, open to feeling, a sense of flow, a feeling of engagement with the world, life feels “workable,” the feeling of being squarely in my own life

Physical sensations: Muscle tension, tightness in chest and throat, knot in the stomach, buzzy sensation in lips and upper arms, neck pain
Emotional experience: feeling overwhelmed, feeling trapped, thinking speeds up, can’t make sense of my thoughts, lost perspective, no distinction between irritants and catastrophes

Physical sensations: Sleepy, body feels heavy and wooden, sensation of caving into myself
Emotional experience: Shame, feeling alienated from others, feeling “cursed,” wanting to disappear

The next stage is to recognize what is called your “home away from home.” While ventral is where we all feel safe, connected, and like we belong, most of us have a place we go to habitually in times of stress. Your home away from home can be identified by reviewing the states above and answering the question: what is my usual response to stress? Do I tend to collapse into shutdown or to activate into fight or flight? My tendency, for example, is sympathetic where I tend to feel anxious and restless. I’ve come to understand that being in this state helps me feel like I can problem solve my way out of discomfort. 

As you become familiar with your states, practice noticing and naming them and start to connect the dots between state and what seems to have contributed to your arriving there. 

How to Connect with Food and Body through a Polyvagal Lens
While PVT has its critics, it does provide a useful lens through which to examine our relationship with food and our bodies. Based on your state, your appetite, cravings, and uses of food may differ significantly. As you recognize the different states that you move through, how is your relationship with food different? 
You can explore your own relationship with food through the polyvagal lens with this handout exclusively for Professional Members. When I contemplate my own relationship with food in ventral, sympathetic, and dorsal states, this is what I have discovered:

Ventral: appetite regulated, eating feels coordinated with physical hunger, craving a variety of foods

Sympathetic: may feel nauseated, the appetite may be disrupted or absent, craving crunchy textures like Inca corn

Dorsal: appetite may be disrupted or absent, craving soups and creamy foods, eating feels like seeking soothing and comfort

A key point in approaching PVT with mindfulness is how important it is to practice self-compassion. When you realize that your nervous system is acting to protect you at all times, it becomes easier to be kind to yourself, to forgive yourself, and to begin to make new choices. And by identifying how your nervous system state influences your relationship with food, you begin to understand exactly how your nervous system is seeking safety so that you can ultimately add to your coping skills. 

This is not about taking away food as a means of soothing a dysregulated nervous system. Eating the foods that help to regulate you should be seen as evidence of your body’s intelligence. In addition to that tool, however, it is so useful and compassionate to have other outlets, supports, and resources.

TCME Professional Community Members: Download the Handout here.

About the Author

Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RDN, CDN is a non-diet nutrition therapist, writer, and meditation instructor based outside New York City. She helps people struggling with chronic dieting, disordered eating, eating disorders, and poor body image to move toward greater peace, health, and wellness using a combination of Intuitive Eating, mindfulness techniques, and meditation. She was trained to teach Shamatha-vipashyana meditation by her teacher Susan Piver, creator of the online meditation community the Open Heart Project. Susan and Jenna co-lead an online Meditation Instructor Training course to teach dietitians, therapists, coaches, yoga teachers, and others to teach meditation skillfully and responsibly to those they work with. Through the Open Heart Project, Jenna also leads the Mommy Sangha, a weekly online gathering for moms who meditate. Jenna is the author of four books, including Eat to Love: A Mindful Guide to Transform your Relationship with Food, Body, and Life and Mommysattva: Contemplations for Mothers Who Meditate (or Wish They Could).

Porges S. 2011. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. W. W. Norton