What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body stemming from the base of the brain and extending through the spinal cord all the way to the large intestine. It’s known as the “wandering nerve” because it carries signals between the brain, heart, lungs, and digestive system. It’s bi-directional; meaning it sends messages from the brain to other organs and also sends messages to the brain from these organs It’s responsible for several involuntary functions including heart rate, speech, sweating, digestion, relaxation, urine output, mood, and the gag reflex.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the involuntary nervous system that’s made of the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest response). The rest-and-digest response kicks in when the brain is at ease after the danger has passed, and it helps slow down breathing, reduce heart rate, improve digestion, and enhance fertility.
Turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest) is crucial to health and it depends on a healthy functioning vagus nerve. That’s what makes the vagus nerve so important!
Why is it important to stimulate the Vagus Nerve?
When the vagus nerve is not working properly, it can lose its ability to switch to the rest-and-digest tone. This may be referred to as a vagus nerve dysfunction. Depending on the part of the nerve that’s affected, this can lead to:
- Changes in heart rate, blood pressure, or blood sugar
- Indigestion, abdominal pain, and bloating
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or gastroparesis
- Intestinal motility issues
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty speaking and change or loss of voice
Tools and strategies that help support a healthy vagus nerve tone are very important to maintain regular day-to-day activities and to avoid these undesired consequences.
10 Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Stimulating the vagus nerve depends on the brain receiving a message that the body is safe. You’ll notice that most of the methods below yield feelings of calm, happiness, and relaxation.
As you read these tips, keep in mind that you don’t have to practice all of them today. Pick one or two and try to incorporate them into your daily or weekly routine. Small steps make a big difference.
Deep and slow breathing
There are many types of slow and deep breathing techniques. Start by sitting in a comfortable position or laying down. In general, exhale longer than you inhale because that triggers better relaxation and helps your body rid more of carbon dioxide. To breathe deeply, expand your belly and widen your rib cage. This is not the time to tuck your tummy in!
- 4-7-8 Breathing: inhale from your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale from your mouth making a whooshing sound for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle 4 times.
- Alternate nose breathing involves closing one nostril and breathing in and out of the other. Exhale longer than you inhale and do it slowly. Switch to the other nostril. Practice for one minute on each side.
- If counting stresses you out, simply take deep and slow breaths by inhaling slowly from your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Allowing your belly and rib cage to expand and making sure the exhales are longer.
Singing and Humming
Singing and humming activate the vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat which eventually stimulate the vagus nerve. You want to feel the vibrations around your ears! Om-ing, the traditional yoga practice of chanting a long “om” is another way to feel those vibrations and activate the vagus nerve. Sing as you mean it in the shower or the car! If someone laughs at you, tell them these are your dietitian’s orders!
Gargling activates the vocal cords which stimulate the vagus nerve. Gargle loudly with cold water for 30 seconds every morning.
Cold shower or exposure to cold temperature
Cold exposure stimulates the vagus and increases your rest-and-digest response. Take a cold shower if you can. If that’s too intimidating, finish your hot shower with 45-60 seconds of cold water exposure. Jump in a cold pool or immerse in a cold water tub. In addition to full-body cold exposure, you can dip your face or wash your face and neck with cold water.
Light exercise has been shown to improve vagus nerve stimulation. Go for a walk or light run, ride your bike, swim, dance, or hula-hoop. Studies support both endurance and interval training, as well as exercises that promote deep breathing like yoga, pilates, tai chi, or qigong. Don’t stress about which exercise is best and simply move your body in a way that leaves you feeling energized! Avoid working right after eating though. If you have an injury or are going through a lot of physical stress like chronic fatigue, pain, an autoimmune flare-up, or hormonal issues, stick with low-impact exercises. Allow your body time to rest and reset as excessive exercise can cause harm.
Laughter and exposure to happy beautiful things
Anything that brings you positive emotions and feelings of happiness and safety will improve the vagus nerve. Spend time in nature, look at pretty pictures, play with your kids or pets, laugh, dance, or listen to happy calming music. If you can’t find something to laugh about and feel weird laughing without a reason, find audio of people or kids laughing and listen to it. Laughing is contagious and you’ll be laughing for sure in seconds.
Meditation helps calm the brain and slows breathing. My favorite type is a guided meditation which encourages relaxation and positive thinking and emotions. There are apps like Headspace and many videos on YouTube that you can listen to and follow. If you’re short on time, start with 10-minute meditations. It’s better if you can sit in a quiet room, but if that’s not an option, you can meditate anywhere and anytime. I find that using headphones helps me focus and prevents distractions from other noises (traffic, kids, etc). Don’t worry about being perfect or finding the best meditation–remember that perfectionism is the enemy of progress
Reflexology, a specific type of massage that applies pressure to specific points on the feet, ears, and hands, stimulates the vagus nerve. All types of massage help you feel relaxed and calm, which eventually help stimulate the rest-and-digest tone. If getting a professional massage is not possible, roll your feet on a tennis ball or a foot massaging roller. Rub your soles on the side of a chair or with your hands and stretch your toes back and forth. You can try massaging your back, glutes, legs, or arms with foam rollers or massage balls. There are lots of options for purchase on Amazon.
Intermittent fasting increases heart rate variability which is connected to improving the vagus nerve tone and the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of intermittent fasting as giving your gut a break so it can recharge and restart. Other benefits of intermittent fasting include improving a certain type of beneficial bacteria and insulin sensitivity. Finish dinner by 7 pm, don’t snack at night and don’t eat breakfast until 7 am the next day. That will give you a 12-hour fast. If you can eat dinner a little bit earlier and delay breakfast by an hour, that would allow a 14-hour fast. Aim to fast for 14-16 hours and it doesn’t have to be daily. Be gentle and do what feels right for you and your body.
The gut and the brain are connected through the vagus nerve and communication goes in both directions. Beneficial gut bacteria produce many neurotransmitters, including serotonin, GABA, and dopamine, and they help you feel good and happy. Some studies found that probiotic supplements helped improve the vagus nerve tone. Additionally, foods and supplements that contain fibers that feed beneficial bacteria can also nurture a healthy gut microbiome and improve vagus nerve tone.