How To Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve
For many of you, this will be the first time you’ve ever heard of the vagus nerve. And personally, I think that’s too bad! Your vagus nerve is an extremely important part of your body and it plays a massive role in your overall health and wellness.
So, what is the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body, traveling from the base of your brain down your body and into your abdomen. On its way there, it attaches to almost every major organ, including the heart.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the vagus nerve, but what we do know is that it has a major influence on our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is also known as our “rest and digest” response. The PNS works to bring our body back into balance after periods of stress and is also activated when we are resting or digesting our food — hence, the “rest and digest” nickname.
In 2010 researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone (AKA, a strong vagus nerve) and good physical and positive emotions (1). In case that wasn’t enough to convince you the vagus nerve is hugely important, the FDA has already approved a vagus nerve stimulator for depression and epilepsy.
The good news is that certain activities lead to increased vagal tone, including:
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1. Deep breathing
Deep breathing doesn’t sound like much, but it’s probably the best way to stimulate vagal activity. In fact, researchers suspect vagus nerve activation, by way of their focus on deep breathing, helps explain why meditation and yoga are so beneficial (2). We’re not sure exactly how this works, but it’s thought that deep belly breathing and the Ujjayi breath, also known as ocean breath, send signals to the vagus nerve that tell it to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Vagal tone is intricately connected to heart rate variability, which is the variation in time between your heartbeats and a very effective way to measure how relaxed or anxious you are. Study after study has shown that exercise improves heart rate variability (3) by increasing vagal tone and decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is essentially the counterpart to the parasympathetic nervous system; it’s activated in times of stress and has earned the nickname the “fight or flight” response.
3. Singing in the shower (preferably, a cold shower)
Much like breathing, singing stimulates the vagus nerve and can improve vagal tone. One study showed that professional singers had better heart rate variability (4) and increase PNS activity (as an added bonus, singing also increased energy and improved mood). This makes a lot of sense when you learn that your voice box is actually connected to your vagus nerve directly. So, why the shower? And why a cold shower? Because cold exposure is also one of the best ways to stimulate the vagus nerve (5) (as well as your metabolism!).
Whether you are getting a professional massage or giving yourself a foot, neck, or scalp massage right in your home, you’ll be activating your vagus nerve, too. Studies have shown increased vagal activity (6) following the stimulating of pressure receptors during massage therapy.
5. Get your omega 3s
Healthy fats are one of the most important aspects of your diet. And omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fatty fish, nuts, and seeds, have a beneficial effect on vagal tone and heart rate variability. For example, one study published in Frontiers in Physiology showed that supplementing with omega-3s (7), which are extremely important for brain-heart health, led to a decreased heart rate at rest.
As Dr. Mladen Golubic, the Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic, once said: “The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” Clearly, the vagus nerve has far-reaching effects on our health. And it’s up to us to make sure we’re supporting it as much as we can!
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- Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological science, 24(7), 1123–1132. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827
- Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
- Routledge, F. S., Campbell, T. S., McFetridge-Durdle, J. A., & Bacon, S. L. (2010). Improvements in heart rate variability with exercise therapy. The Canadian journal of cardiology, 26(6), 303–312. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0828-282x(10)70395-0
- Grape, C., Sandgren, M., Hansson, L. O., Ericson, M., & Theorell, T. (2003). Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson. Integrative physiological and behavioral science : the official journal of the Pavlovian Society, 38(1), 65–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF0273426
- Chang R. B. (2019). Body thermal responses and the vagus nerve. Neuroscience letters, 698, 209–216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2019.01.013
- Field, T., & Diego, M. (2008). Vagal activity, early growth and emotional development. Infant behavior & development, 31(3), 361–373. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2007.12.008
- Christensen J. H. (2011). Omega-3 polyunsaturated Fatty acids and heart rate variability. Frontiers in physiology, 2, 84. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2011.00084
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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