Because of its long path through the human body, the vagus nerve has been described as the “wanderer nerve.” The vagus nerve is an integral part of the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” response, the opposite of our “fight or flight” response). A two-way feedback system, it picks up information about how the organs are functioning and sends data from the brain stem back to the body, helping to control digestion, heart rate, voice, mood, and the immune system.
With its crucial role in gut-brain communication, researchers who study the vagus nerve have emphasized the nerve as a structural link between physical and mental health.
Vagal nerve functioning is associated with better emotion regulation and psychological flexibility, suggesting that various interventions that impact vagal function may help reduce psychological distress and promote well-being in people with chronic conditions.
The vagus nerve helps to regulate inflammation, and inflammation is involved in just about every chronic disease. So stimulating vagus nerve signals to the brain are anti-inflammatory – it signals the brain to turn down the stress response and reduce the production of inflammatory cytokines.
The largest clinical trial to date is now examining to what degree vagus nerve stimulation may help patients with depression who cannot find relief with other treatments.
What Happens When the Vagus Underperforms
An amped-up perception of stress causes lower vagal tone (or responsiveness), which means the vagus nerve operates at a lower capacity.
Conversely, a high vagal tone is a marker of greater altruistic behavior and a feeling of closeness to others. Increased positive emotions, in turn, produce increases in vagal tone, an effect mediated by increased perceptions of social connections.
We can do things to stimulate our vagus nerve to send a message to our bodies that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, pain management, well-being, and resilience. A variety of interventions have been shown to improve vagal function, including meditation, relaxation, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and spending time in nature,
Below are some tips on how you can stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve:
Breathe Deep, slow belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve's healthy function. In addition, you can use breathing exercises to shift your focus from stress or pain. To practice deep breathing inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth; remember to:
Laugh A good laugh lifts your mood, boosts your immune system, and stimulates the vagus nerve.
Alternate hot and cold showers It has to be totally cold, and that hot-cold temperature variation is an excellent stimulant for the vagus nerve.
Sing. The vagus nerve also supplies the throat muscles.
Yoga Sun salutation yoga is potent in stimulating the vagus nerve.
Massage and acupressure are excellent detox activities because they open the lymphatic channels and stimulate the vagus nerve.
Mind your microbiome Eat sufficient fiber and probiotic foods. The gut, the brain, and the rest of your body are connected. Knowing about the vagus nerve helps explain why gut, mental, and whole-body health is so tangled up with each other and another reason why good gut health is so important for things way beyond digestion.
The last and most easily done activity that allows you to stimulate the vagus nerve is to go for long walks, preferably in nature, because nature causes the relaxation response to be triggered rather than the stress response. This is called forest bathing. Do your vagus nerve a favor this long weekend and get outside!