What if I told you there were simple practices you could do daily in a matter of minutes to be more relaxed and less affected by stress? Amazing, right?! What’s even more fascinating is that it all starts with our friend, the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It lives up to its Latin meaning, “wanderer,” since it connects the brain to major muscles and organs such as the throat, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, stomach, and intestines. This communication system goes both ways, so the brain, muscles, and organs can send messages to each other. Messages sent through the vagus nerve help regulate parasympathetic nervous system processes in the body, which are the “rest and digest” functions (opposite of the sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight”). These include swallowing, coughing, talking, breathing, heart rate, blood vessel dilation, hunger and fullness cues, and digestion to name a few.
So, how do you magically improve relaxation and handle stress better through this nerve? By stimulating it, which is also known as increasing vagal tone. The vagal tone is measured by tracking heart rate and breathing rate. An increase in vagal tone means a decrease in heart rate and respiration, just like when you’re relaxing. Studies show that a higher vagal tone is associated with better blood sugar balance, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (i.e. stroke, high blood pressure), improved digestion, decreased constipation, reduced migraines, improved mental health (i.e. stress handling, depression, anxiety, PTSD), decreased inflammation, and improved immunity. Just that one nerve!
Learning how to improve vagal tone on a daily basis will not only help transition you into a more relaxed state overall, but will also give you a toolkit of go-to techniques to better handle stressful situations in the moment so that you can get back to a clear-headed relaxed state more quickly and effectively. The last thing I want is for you to stress about doing each one of these things multiple times a day. That is not my intention. I recommend choosing one to do each day that best fits your personality and schedule. Feel free to experiment with as many as you like and find the one that works best for you.
Vagus Nerve Activation Toolkit
Slow, Deep, Belly Breathing. This makes sense since vagal tone is all about slowing down your heart rate and breathing. Think about what happens when you’re stressed—your heart and breathing speed up, and your body is flooded with cortisol (stress hormone) and blood sugar so you have the energy to fight or flight. The key is to do the exact opposite of that so you can rest and digest. Practice by inhaling slowly through the nose for 3-4 seconds, allowing the belly to rise; then exhale through the mouth for 6-7 seconds allowing the belly to fall. The main thing here is to go slow and exhale longer than you inhale. You can also listen to meditations while you focus on your breathing. Research shows that loving-kindness meditation, where you send positive thoughts towards others and yourself, was especially helpful in activating the vagus nerve.
Hum, Sing, Chant “Om,” Gargle, or Laugh. I’m always looking for a good excuse to belt out some tunes. Plus, have you noticed that you hum or sing when you’re in a good mood? There’s a reason for that. The vagus nerve is connected to our vocal cords, so any sort of vibration helps to increase vagal tone. Try humming, singing, or chanting 5-10 minutes daily, gargling for a few minutes in the morning and evening when you brush your teeth, and/or laughing out loud to a comedy or with friends.
Cold Exposure. The “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system is de-activated by cold exposure, while the “rest and digest” parasympathetic system is quickly activated by cold exposure through the vagus nerve. There are a couple of ways to go about this. Most people prefer to start with placing their face in a bowl filled with ice cold water (10-15° F) for 5-10 seconds, while others end their shower with 30 seconds of cold water. Either way, be cautious with this one since it involves freezing cold temperatures, and speak to your doctor to rule out any contraindications.
Fiber & Probiotics. This is probably the most fascinating thing to me: gut bacteria (aka gut microbiota) talks with the vagus nerve. That’s right, those good bacteria friends are communicating outside the gut lining on whether or not we need to activate inflammation and the immune system for invaders (bad bacteria, pathogens, etc.). They communicate with the vagus nerve through the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS has the most nerve cells in our body and houses the majority of our feel-good hormone serotonin. This whole connection is called the brain-gut axis, which includes the brain, spinal cord, hypothalamus pituitary adrenal-axis (HPA-axis), and the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic, parasympathetic, and ENS). This is why an unhealthy gut can affect anxiety, depression, stress, and inflammation (including autoimmune conditions). Studies found that depressed subjects actually had different types of gut bacteria compared to those who weren’t depressed. Regarding inflammation, research shows that patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, could be linked to poor gut health causing a chronic immune response and therefore chronic inflammation in the gut. These nutrients come into play, because fiber feeds good bacteria and probiotic-rich foods and supplements diversify and support a healthy gut. This tip doesn’t take any extra time, just some planning to ensure you have fiber at your meals, as well as consuming sources of probiotic-rich foods (fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, etc. if you don’t have a histamine intolerance) and/or supplements.
Yoga. Due to yoga’s emphasis on breathing and meditation, it’s a good activity to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation throughout the body. There are many free videos online that range from 5-60 minutes, as well as beginner to advanced levels. Some of my favorites include Yoga with Adriene and Lululemon.
Massage. This will take more time, planning, and money if you want a professional massage; however, you can do this on your own at home or the office. Studies show that massaging feet and the neck where the carotid arteries are located stimulate the vagus nerve.
I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below which tool from the toolkit you’re most excited to practice to promote relaxation? Also, if you felt this blog was helpful or know someone who would benefit from it, please like it and share it.
With love, Steph
Howland, R. H. (2014). Vagus nerve stimulation. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, 1(2), 64-73. doi: 10.1007/s40473-014-0010-5.
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Review: Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain-gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9(44). doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Zou, L., Sasaki, J. E., Wei, G., Huang, T., Yeung, A. S., Neto, O. B., Chen, K. W., & Hui, S. S. (2018). Effects of mind–body exercises (tai chi/yoga) on heart rate variability parameters and perceived stress: A systematic review with meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 7(11), 404-424. doi: 10.3390/jcm7110404.
“Vagus Nerve Exercises.” Anxiety Recovery Center, Victoria. Retrieved on July 1, 2020 from https://www.arcvic.org.au/34-resources/402-vagus-nerve-exercises