You might have heard people on podcasts or Instagram talking about the vagus nerve recently. For some reason it seems to have popped up on the radar of many people in the health and wellness world. It’s something I’ve been talking about for a long time now - in fact in my last book, 'The Power Source', I talked about the vagus nerve a lot. Anyway now that it’s trending so much I thought it would be a great time to give you all a bit more information on what the vagus nerve is all about - and more importantly, how to reset it. Because unlike the city of the same name (although different spelling), what happens in the vagus doesn’t have to stay in the vagus!
What is the vagus nerve?
First a little anatomy. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body, running from your brain through your neck and ear and down to the body. It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. In fact, the word "Vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which exactly represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs (see picture).
The Vagus Nerve:
The vagus nerve is a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system - also known as your “rest and digest” nervous system. It affects your breathing, digestive function, and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your physical and mental health.
The vagus nerve is also the pathway by which your brain communicates with your gut. It is positively affected by serotonin and dopamine (the ‘feel good’ chemicals that are associated with the brain but are actually produced mainly in the gut). But when the body is stressed it switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode which turns off the digestion process - and by association, shuts down the communication running through the vagus nerve. This can bring about an impaired digestive system and depression as the ‘feel good’ chemicals have not been produced.
And therein lies the problem. Stress is in and around us all the time - but these last few years with the pandemic, global political turmoil, environmental concerns and even social media-related issues have seen stress hitting all-time highs for many of us. And all of this stress is playing havoc with the proper functioning of the vagus nerve. As a result, digestive disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), leaky gut, constipation or even just bloating and stomach pain are all on the rise right now.
When your vagus nerve is healthy and your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning well, it dials down thesympathetic nervous system or ‘fight-or-flight’ response. So in a way, the vagus nerve acts as a built-in “stress-reset button” - something most of us could do with these days!
How can we make sure our vagus nerve is healthy?
First you need to be aware of the "tone" of your vagus nerve. Vagal tone is a biological measure that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your Vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve!
Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). Your heart rate variability (HRV), is the degree to which the intervals between heartbeats vary from heartbeat to heartbeat. You can measure HRV with a Bluetooth heart rate monitor (such as an Oura ring) that can run with an app on your smartphone.
Higher heart rate variability (in other words a less regular heartbeat) is associated with better digestion, reduced inflammation, increased emotional resilience, and a longer lifespan. High HRV means your parasympathetic nervous system is responding and adapting to your breath and other stimuli and is a sign that your nervous system is in a state of resilience. Lower heart rate variability on the other hand, is associated with negative mood and inflammation.
So higher HRV means you have better vagal nerve tone - while lower HRV means your vagal nerve tone is poor. And people who have a higher vagal tone have healthier hearts, digest their food better, reduce their inflammation, and have an easier ability to feel calm and peaceful.
On the other hand, the signs and symptoms of having alower vagal nerve tone are manifold, and include:
- Anxiety, depression and mood disorders
- Headaches, migraines
- Inability to relax while eating, inability to feel full
- Low stomach acid and secretion
- Low or slow bile acid production making it harder to digest fats and clear toxins,
- Constipation, SIBO, IBS, poor absorption of nutrients,
- Food sensitivities
- Insomnia - interrupted sleep
- Chronic fatigue
- High blood pressure, high resting heart rate
- Chronic inflammation
My Top 10 tips to strengthen your vagal tone and stimulate the vagus nerve:
The good news is there are quite a few simple things that you can easily do to improve the tone of your vagus nerve. Here’s my top 10 tips to help reset your vagus nerve.1. Deep and Slow Breathing
Deep and slow breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve.
- Breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward.
Your exhale should be long and I like to give an audible sigh when I exhale. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
2. Use the Lo Rox Body Sphere tool
This simple squish ball is a great way to improve vagal nerve tone. Lie on your back and use the ball to put gentle pressure on the back of the neck - this area is the origin of the vagus nerve from where it travels through the body to the gut. You can also use the Sphere on your stomach.
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.
- Take cold showers and go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing.
- 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.
You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice-cold water, this is especially beneficial after exercise.
Meditation can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Take a moment each day to be grateful for 5 things in your life and think of loving, kind, compassionate and forgiving thoughts towards others and yourself.
5. Sound Therapy, Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling
The ear and hearing have a significant effect on the rest of the body due to its proximity to the vagus nerve. The ear is a parasympathetic regulatory organ that uses innervation of the vagus nerve to affect the whole body. Auditory stimulation of the vagus nerve can lead to reduced activity of the limbic system.
- Solfeggio frequencies - specific tones of sound that date back to ancient history which can help in bringing the body back into balance and aid healing, i.e. chanting done by the Gregorian monks.
- Listening to tuning forks, Tibetan singing bowls or crystal singing bowls. I’ve got some great sequences in the Aligned Life Studio that I particularly love.
- Listening to the sound of running water, a water fountain, waterfall, river, and ocean waves
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.
Gut bacteria can have a beneficial effect on mood and anxiety, partly by affecting the vagus nerve.
Researchers have found that certain gut bacteria can improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. Animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, in which researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behavior. The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood.
Another study found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum normalized anxiety-like behavior in mice by acting through the vagus nerve.
A high vagal tone improves the function of the digestive system by improving production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
I’m a huge fan of the brand ION*. This Gut Support mineral supplement from the incredible Dr Zach Bush and his team has been shown to promote the strengthening of the gut barrier, which supplies the first line of defense against everyday exposures to environmental and foodborne toxins. This in turn helps with inflammatory response, enhancing mental clarity, promoting immune function, supporting digestion, and alleviating gluten sensitivity. (Note you can use the code ALIGNEDLIFE at checkout to get 15% off items on the ION site here).
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system. Researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity by reducing the heart rate and increasing heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve. High fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance”
Massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone. The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response.
‘Movement Medicine’ (which is what I like to call exercise) has so many benefits. It not only strengthens your muscles but alsoincreases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline. And now researchers have found that exercise has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. If you want some specific exercises to improve vagal nerve tone, I’ve got you covered inside the Aligned Life Studio.
10. Socializing and Laughing
Reflecting on positive social connections actually improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood. Vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another.
Vagus nerve stimulation needs to be practiced regularly to be most effective. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it's time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.
So please give some or all of the above tips and tricks a try. I know your vagus nerve will thank you - and I know they’ll leave you feeling healthier, calmer and less inflamed.