The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. It plays a central role in “rest and digest” and this long nerve originates in the brain, and wanders through the thoracic cavity, connecting directly to many of our main organs such as the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, pancreas and kidneys.
They say that happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But the Vagus in the body branches all the way to the stomach and kidneys, connecting points far distance from its origin in the brain stem. It is a primary parasympathetic (relaxation) instigator, which means that stimulation of the vagus nerve increases our relaxation. Here are some of the functions of the vagus nerve:
In the brain, the vagus nerve helps control mood and anxiety. Signals travelling from the gut influences its monoaminergic systems.
In the heart, it controls the variability and rate of the heartbeat, as well as blood pressure.
In the lungs, it links breathing depth with bronchi constriction.
In the liver and pancreas, it helps control glucose storage and the balance of glucose in the blood.
In the gut, it elevates stomach acidity and digestive juices, and gut triggers peristaltic action.
In the kidneys, it provides parasympathetic innervation, releasing dopamine in the kidneys, which helps remove sodium and lower blood pressure.
In the gallbladder, the vagus nerve helps to release bile, which is central not only for the breakdown of fats but also for the elimination of harmful toxins.
The importance of this balancing and relaxing nerve system makes vagal nerve stimulation vital for health and wellbeing.So if the vagus nerve is not performing like the Vegas King, we may suffer, brain fog, neurotransmitter imbalances, digestive disorders, constipation, bloating, all the symptoms under the IBS umbrella, and other stress-related issues. Even the inability to orgasm may be linked to vagal understimulation.
What is Vagal Tone?
The tone is the default stimulation or activity rate of the vagal nerve, and this is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart- rate speeds up a little when you breathe in and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone means simply that your body can relax faster after stress.
The Benefits of High Vagal Tone
High vagal tone improves the regulation of blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Higher vagal tone is also associated with better mood, less anxiety and more stress-resilience. It also brings people closer together and encourage more altruistic behaviour.
Low Vagal Tone, on the other hand, has the opposite effect and is associated with cardiovascular conditions and strokes, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, inflammatory conditions. Inflammatory conditions such as autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus and more).
People with fatigue, food sensitivities, anxiety, and gut problems, can be linked to having a lower vagal tone, which means a lower ability to activate or perform its functions.
How to Activate Your Vagus Nerve & Increase Tone
In 2010, Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok recruited around 70 university staff members for a study. Each volunteer was asked to record the strength of emotions they felt during each day, over a nine week period. Vagal tone was measured at the beginning of the experiment and the end. As part of the experiment, half of the participants were taught a meditation technique to promote feelings of goodwill towards themselves and others — in other words a method of increasing vagal tone. Those who meditated showed a significant rise in vagal tone, which was associated with reported increases in positive emotions. “That was the first experimental evidence that if you increased positive emotions and that led to increased social closeness, then vagal tone changed,” Kok says.
Also, “Om” chanting during such meditation stimulates the vagus nerve!
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises
These were developed by leading bodyworker, Stanley Rosenberg, and they involve specific eye movements and stretches. Here are a couple of videos that outline some of these exercises: https://youtu.be/L1HCG3BGK8I and https://youtu.be/2rJvWLN8rtE
You can manually stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging several areas. A foot massage can stimulate vagus nerve activity, as can massaging your neck. A neck massage along the carotid sinus (the right side of your throat near where you check your pulse) can also stimulate the vagus nerve.
Singing at the top of your lungs not only increases oxytocin, the same hormone released when breastfeeding, but it also works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus nerve. Singing in unison also increases HRV and vagus function.
Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) the system increases - and this is all mediated by the vagus nerve. Drinking cold water or splashing cold water on your face may be enough to stimulate your vagus nerve. You can also take cold showers, and take a swim in an unheated pool. Check out Vim Hoff for more information on this.
Yoga increases vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic system. A 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a control group who just did walking exercises. The study found increased thalamic GABA levels, which were associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety.
Deep breathing is always relaxing to your body, but you can use other breathing techniques to stimulate your vagus nerve. Alternate nostril breathing or yogic breathing is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve. Another breathing technique that you may never have tried is inhaling deeply and then closing your airway while pushing your breath against the inside of your chest and bearing down with your abdominal muscles (like you are trying to pass gas). This method of applying internal pressure from the lungs out to the surrounding organs stimulates the vagus nerve as it connects your heart, spleen,lungs, stomach and small intestines.
Have a Good Laugh (not everyone can)
Researchers in the Journal of Psychological Science found that more social connections led to more opportunities for positive emotions, which also increased stimulation of the vagus nerve. The researchers say, “This experimental evidence identifies one mechanism - perceptions of social connections - through which positive emotions build physical health.” Laughter makes you feel good and stimulates your vagus nerve, which helps produce overall good health and well-being.
The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. Bravo & et al in their study showed that animals supplemented with L. Rhamnosus experienced various positive changes in GABA (calming) receptors that was mediated by the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve handles digestion - This is only possible when your brain tells you are in a safe environment-parasympathetic nervous system. Otherwise, digestion is shut down, due to stress. When you're fasting, an empty stomach sends signals back to the brain that digestion is unnecessary so energy resources can be used for relaxation instead.
The Vagus nerve has a key role is so many of our bodily functions that research in the future may offer more clues to resolving conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The interplay between the brain and gut is looking like it has the greatest potential and promise for helping people with depression, healing life's distressing ruptures and traumas.
Please note, if you are unwell, we advise you to get a tailored treatment program from your healthcare practitioner or doctor.
Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018 Mar 13;9:44.DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044. PMID: 29593576; PMCID: PMC5859128.
Kok, B. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological psychology, 85(3), 432-436.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005
Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science. 2013;24(7):1123-1132. doi:10.1177/0956797612470827 .
Zila, I., Mokra, D., Kopincova, J., Kolomaznik, M., Javorka, M., & Calkovska, A. (2017). Vagal-immune interactions involved in cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. Physiological research, 66(Suppl 2), S139-S145. https://doi.org/10.33549/physiolres.933671
Johnson, R. L., & Wilson, C. G. (2018). A review of vagus nerve stimulation as a therapeutic intervention. Journal of inflammation research, 11, 203-213. https://doi.org/10.2147/JIR.S163248