What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body, and the 10th cranial nerve. It has both afferent and efferent motor and sensory functions. The nerve runs extensively throughout the body, impacting several organ systems and body parts, including the heart, gastrointestinal system, tongue, and pharynx. The vagus nerve has numerous clinical connections due to its extensive distribution throughout the body. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
If you’re vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.
1. Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.
2. Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve. When breathing, try using your diaphragm and allow this area of your body to expand. When we take shallow breaths from our chest, it can activate our sympathetic ("fight or flight") system.
3. The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, including the carotid sinus and larynx. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve, thereby increasing heart rate variability and vagal tone.
4. Meditation is a great way of staying grounded, present, and using breath as an anchor. Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of compassion towards yourself. Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation.
5. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system. These nutrients may help people overcome addiction, repair a “leaky brain”, and even lower mild cognitive impairment. But researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity. And high fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance."
6. Exercise has profound effects on our brain's mitochondria and growth hormone, while also playing a role in reversing cognitive decline. But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain why its recommended for optimal brain health.
7. Research shows that massages in specific areas of our body can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone. Foot massages have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures.
Your vagus nerve has many effects on both your physical and emotional well-being. It can help to lower your heart rate, lessen seizures in epilepsy patients, treat depression, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, manage your emotions, and treat migraines and cluster headaches. Exercises for the vagus nerve improve vagal tone, your ability to handle stress, and your capacity to recover rapidly from stressful situations. Various ways to activate the vagus nerve can be enjoyable, peaceful, or work with your existing daily routines!