The vestibular system is the forgotten designated driver of our body. It’s always overlooked and doesn’t get enough respect for all that it does. It’s the first sensory system to develop while in the womb and acts as the foundation for the other systems such as your visual and proprioceptive system. When a baby’s vestibular system develops it interacts with gravity and further develops the child’s nervous system for movement. In fact, all your muscles and your eyes are neurologically tied to the vestibular system and it forms the body map and movement maps of how we interact with the world. The coordination of the eyes and head together serves as the basis for all the interactions in our lives. Your head follows your eyes in almost every activity whether you’re keeping your eye on the ball, taking notes from a board, or even reading across this page. Another big factor the vestibular system contributes to are maintaining balance and equilibrium. The first sign of brain deterioration is when balance starts to fail (Smart Moves,p. 111 Carla Hannaford). Overall this system is HUGE as it impacts how you process the environment, how you move, your sense of self, and even how you learn! It makes almost every other system possible.
The inner ear acts like gyroscopes in your head maintaining balance by allowing the tiny hairs and gel like liquid to communicate to your brain that your head is moving. Another good way to think of the vestibular system is modeling it like a neural GPS. The brain is the central processing unit of the GPS and it looks for three satellites which would be the visual system, vestibular system and the movement/sensory (proprioceptive). These satellites relay to the brain where it’s going and how to efficiently get there.
Without those sensory organs of the vestibular system intact, our sense of balance and what we perceive to be happening in our body can go haywire. Anyone who ever had or knows someone who had vertigo understands how scary it can be. To them, it feels the world is literally spinning out of control and fainting ensues because of the overwhelming sensations. The brain is not getting the correct or maybe adequate information from their inner ears and eyes and in turn, they don’t feel safe. When you don’t feel safe your arousal level, attention and sympathetic nervous system kick in. This is another example of a high threshold strategy when it’s not needed. Some of these high threshold strategies could be manifested by motion sickness, fear of spinning, claustrophobia, and dizziness. Things are out of balance in the vestibular system.
There are a couple of factors that go into balancing. Just like satellites relaying to the GPS of where it is, the eyes, the inner ear, and the proprioceptive system must work together. Dr. Cobb, the founder of Z-health, states that the vestibular system requires Signal Quality and Signal Integrations. Signal quality is how well the eyes, inner ear, and nerve endings in the joints and muscles coordinate together to provide a signal to the brain referencing what’s going on around you. Signal Integration, on the other hand, is about how your brain processes information its received from the signal quality sources such as the eyes and inner ear. Any small deficit in either the signal quality or signal integration can disturb how you sense, move, and interact with the world. Amazingly half of the children with some kind of learning disabilities have some kind of vestibular dysfunction. Here are some studies exhibiting how the vestibular training improved learning Study 1, Study 2, Study 3, and Study 4. Just like any movement or reflex, the brain has to receive input and integrate it in order to form an output. The key to challenging balance is to stress both the signal quality and signal integrations. An example would be if you balance on one leg for about ten seconds and then doing it again but this time closing your eyes. It’s harder, isn’t it? Your challenging the signal quality by taking vision away so your inner ear has to work even harder.
It’s easy to overlook the vestibular system and not appreciate all that it fully does. By working on the vestibular system we can impact how we sense and process the world around us and become more resilient. The way we create this resiliency is challenging the inner ear of the vestibular system and integrating it with the other systems. The phrase “Its all in your head” applies definitely now because by simply moving our head is what stimulates the inner ear and the vestibular system to act. The simple activities and movements that we are all aware of such as running, jumping, spinning, rolling, flipping, rocking, and crawling all work the vestibular system without us even realizing because it involves moving our head (Original Strength).
Rolling on the floor laughing will also count. I MEAN HAVE YOU SEEN ANCHORMAN!
These activities allow the fluid in our inner ear to move and signal the brain that we are in motion and hence adapt to whatever position we are in. Also, take into consideration differences in the vestibular system of a kid easily banging out cartwheels one after the other and an adult struggling to balance his hands on the floor to perform one. They are on totally different levels. The kid’s inner ear is much more adaptable and can tolerate the spins and whirls of the adventures of being a kid but for the adult, their vestibular system is a bit deconditioned.
Life is a magical land full of candy and gumdrops.
What I’m sure feels like trying to find the keys in dark with a hangover.
Just like in weight training how the volume and intensity are manipulated, balance training manipulates the signal quality and signal integration. In other words, the visual system, inner ear, movement/sensory system and integration skills must be challenged together. I will reference Dr. Cobb’s formula from his sample page from the vestibular system which is also referenced at the bottom. (Z-health-http://zhealtheducation.com/BalanceGym_Sample.pdf)
Stance/Body Position + Head movement + Eye movement = Increasing Difficulty
The mix and match of any of these three factors and it will contribute to challenging the intensity of your vestibular system. Moving your head and eyes in the cardinal directions similar to a clock is another fantastic way to progress.
The easiest start progression would be lying down and rotating your eyes and head in the same direction. If you really feel like shaking up the way you process the world then the hardest variation would be walking forwards or backward and moving your eyes and head in opposite directions (please do it in a closed environment where people understand the purpose of this exercise or alone so people don’t think your a walking exorcist). Here is a much better explanation by Dr. Cobb putting everything into effect.
Because we like to think like scientists, we can use a Test/Retest to establish a baseline to see if any of the drills work.
Test: Simply balance on one leg for 15-20 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
-take notes of how you felt and what happened either in your head or write it down
Retest: the one leg balancing
Did it feel easier, and or did you last longer? If it felt easier you made a reset in your vestibular system.
Another great way to challenge the vestibular system is to add any type of crawling or rolling variation. Luckily if you have any bear crawls or Get Ups in your program, you’re already working your vestibular system without even knowing. Lucky you! Here are some excellent drills by Tim Anderson teaching you use your eyes to drive your head and learning to crawl
Take time to breathe in each position to really own it and don’t let the simplicity fool you. Your vestibular system is working hard to get into position especially in an elevated half roll.
If you really want to dig deeper I implore you to check out the Near Point Gaze Stabilization and Far Point Gaze Stabilization on Z-Health. These drills are similar in which you keep your eyes fixed on something while moving your head in all the cardinal directions. The only difference is that the former is near your face and the other focused out on a target in the distance.
I’m sure by now you understand that moving your head and rolling is good but you’re probably thinking how is any of this going to make me lift more, be faster, conquer the world? I agree that these drills and skills are not going to automatically transform you into the cream of the crop.
But they do serve as the foundation for all these great actions. If someone is able to process the world around them better, they don’t have to hold their breath, their already more relaxed and more trusting of their body since every little part is up to par. Also, you’ll probably pick up things around you faster than the next guy and won’t have to think about it. When you process things better it becomes easier. It’s tuning a better software for a champion and taking off the parking break.
Here is some more food for thought, perhaps the reason many people’s vestibular systems are so deconditioned is because we no longer play. Playing stimulates the vestibular system and is why growing up kids were encouraged to play outside on swings, merry-go-round, tumble, crawl and just have fun. You don’t have to teach a kid to play or use their vestibular system. Just let them be as nature takes care of things!
Now let your ears jam out to this awesome song
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Ayres, A. Jean. “Deficits in sensory integration in educationally handicapped children.” Journal of Learning Disabilities 2.3 (1969): 160-168.
Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves(Salt Lake City; Great River Books, 2005,) p. 111
Original Strength: Regaining The Body You were Meant to Have by Tim Anderson and Geoff Neupert