Health & Wellness

The Vagus Nerve: How It Calms You + 5 Ways to Stimulate It

How does a trip to vagus sound? No, I didn’t misspell it … I’m talking about your body’s vagus nerve—which you can view as the heart of your parasympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for helping you to de-stress and unwind after a fight-or-flight response). And since chronic stress is linked to so many of our modern illnesses and diseases, you can probably guess why you need to know about this vital nerve.

So, let’s take a closer look at the vagus nerve and review what it does. I’ll also explain what happens when this nerve is stimulated and how that supports your body’s stress response and overall health.

 

All About the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves in your body. It’s by far the longest and most complex cranial nerve, often referred to as the tenth cranial nerve. Now, it’s important to note that the vagus nerve is actually split into two nerves—one on each side of your body. It starts at your brain stem and runs down through your chest and into your abdomen.

The vagus nerve is responsible for connecting your brainstem to the rest of your body, including your neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen. As such, it actually sends vital information about your major organs and body to your brain. It basically helps your brain to not only become aware of what’s happening in your body but also to monitor it. [1]

Interestingly, the vagus nerve is also responsible for regulating your digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, and even certain reflex actions (such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and even vomiting). [2]

Due to its important role, this nerve is also involved in the “digest and rest” portion of your central nervous system, making it essential in controlling symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, memory, and even poor attention. Now, when it comes to the vagus nerve, researchers pay close attention to its tone, also known as its level of activity or stimulation.

They’ve found that when the nerve is suppressed, or has low tone (which is what happens during times of chronic stress), you tend to have more psychological concerns and mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

In addition, studies have shown that low vagal tone can result in digestive difficulties, inflammation, and even obesity! How? Well, one of the most critical functions of the vagus nerve is its ability to transmit hunger and satiety signals.

A2016 review stated that chronic consumption of high-calorie foods reduces the sensitivity of the neurons in the vagus nerve. The researchers revealed that this disruption to vagus nerve function can drive instances overeating and obesity. [3]

Now, conversely, a stimulated vagus nerve (one that has high tone) has been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety disorders and inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. It also aids your digestion and absorption of nutrients, lowers risk of heart disease, aids in toxin removal, supports kidney function, and evens supports the mind-body connection!

 

Vagus nerve - Dr. Pingel

 

In fact, a 2013 study revealed that greater vagal tone was linked to better physical and mental health. [4] Additionally, studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve lowers inflammation by suppressing the production of proinflammatory cytokines (markers of internal inflammation). [5]

Furthermore, studies have shown that vagus nerve stimulation is a promising ancillary treatment for previously treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, and inflammatory bowel disease! Researchers stated that there is evidence that this is linked to the beneficial effect that good gut bacteria have on the nerve. [6]

As you can see, it’s important to have high vagal tone, but exactly how do you do that? Let’s take a closer look at natural ways you can stimulate the vagus nerve.

5 Natural Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Traditionally, conventional medicine states that the vagus nerve must be stimulated electronically via a device inserted into your body. But it can actually be stimulated in a more natural, safer ways. Here are a few of the scientifically-proven natural ways you stimulate and help tone your vagus nerve.

1. Spend time meditating.

If you aren’t familiar with meditation, it’s the art and practice of training your mind to be aware and in the present moment. Interestingly, meditation has been shown to instantly calm both your body and mind. [7] And this is largely thanks to the vagus nerve.

According to the same 2013 study from above, practicing meditation resulted in greater vagal tone and increased positive emotions. [8]

For tips on how to meditate and more information on the many benefits of meditation, check out this article.

2. Get moving.

Believe it or not, simply just performing some light exercise can be enough to stimulate the vagus nerve.

A 2019 study revealed that moderate exercise actually activates the vagus nerve, which induces the release of dopamine and actually reduces systemic inflammation. [9] Additionally, a 2012 study showed that yoga was able to correct underactivity of the parasympathetic nervous system due, in part, through stimulating the vagus nerve. [10]

If you’re looking for tips on beneficial yoga moves, check out these yoga poses that also help promote digestion.

3. Take a cold shower.

While you may think of taking a cold shower as a stressful experience, research shows the opposite may be true.

According to a 2018 study, cold stimulation on your neck can actually strengthen vagal tone and ultimately lower heart rate. [11] In addition, another study revealed that regularly exposing yourself to cold temperatures can stimulate the vagas nerve, which will help decrease the fight-or-flight response and activate parasympathetic activity. [12]

Now, the idea of taking a cold shower probably isn’t very appealing. So, take a shower as you normally would and make the water colder for the last minute or two.

4. Try intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting is known to provide many health benefits, from improving your memory to fighting inflammation to supporting your body’s stress response. [13, 14] It’s even been shown to improve your resting heartrate and heartrate variability, which is an indicator of vagus nerve stimulation.

Accordingly, one animal study revealed that fasting activated the vagus nerve, which aids in the nervous system’s response to threating stimuli. [15]

Click here to learn more about how intermittent fasting works.

5. Sing or hum a tune.

Finally, if you’re looking for a simple way to simulate the vagus nerve, look no further than your own voice. That’s right—research has shown that simply singing or humming can simulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone. And this is possible because your vocal chords are actually connected to your vagus nerve!

To confirm this, researchers studied how singing impacts heart rate variability (an indicator of high vagal tone) and found that song structure, respiration, and heart rate were connected. [16]

So, the next time you’re feeling stressed, begin singing or humming a favorite tune to help stimulate your vagus nerve and promote calmness.

 

Other potential ways to improve vagal tone include certain eye movements, carotid artery stimulation via massage, ear therapy, and acupuncture. [17, 18, 19, 20, 21]

 

Key Takeaways

  • The tenth cranial nerve, also known as the vagus nerve, is viewed as the heart of the parasympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for helping you to de-stress and unwind after a fight-or-flight response).
  • When it come to its function, researchers pay close attention to its tone, also known as its level of activity or stimulation.
  • To improve vagal tone, you can practice a few proven natural methods, including: meditation, exercise, cold exposure, intermittent fasting, or singing.

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