Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Everything You Need To Know + Exactly Why It Matters
Your body is brilliantly interconnected. As a functional medicine practitioner, I have spent the last decade taking all aspects of a person’s health into consideration when helping someone take back control of their health.
One example of your body’s fascinating makeup is your vagus nerve. An often overlooked part of your body, your vagus nerve plays a major role in your overall health and wellness. By understanding exactly what the vagus nerve is and how we can use it to our advantage when it comes to our health - specifically your stress levels - we’ll be able to make simple changes that influence our health for the better.
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What is the vagus nerve?
You have two vagus nerves - one of your left and right side of your body. They are the longest nerves in your body and travel from the base of your brain down your body and into your abdomen that attaches to almost every major organ, including the heart along the way.
How does the vagus nerve affect our health?
While more research needs to be done looking at all the ways the vagus nerve impacts our health, we do know that it has a major influence on our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 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.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve is linked to a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is essentially the counterpart to the parasympathetic nervous system that increases in times of stress. By decreasing SNS activity through vagus nerve stimulation, you’ll be able to help lower your overall stress levels.
Your vagus nerve is responsible for managing the digestion process, by sending signals to your stomach muscles telling them to contract and help push your food along your digestive tract into your small intestine.
3. Blood pressure
Your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are directly involved with your blood pressure levels, working together to keep a homeostatic balance. Considering your vagus nerve directly influences these two systems, it’s important to pay attention to the health of your vagus nerve health and ways you can improve vagus nerve activity.
4. Mental health
Your vagus nerve influences more about your mental health than just stress. Chronic stress can be a trigger for other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. By improving the health of your vagus nerve, you are effectively restoring balance to your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to aid in improved mental wellbeing.
Even if you aren’t struggling with chronic stress or anxiety, stimulating the vagus nerve helps induce relaxation and produce feelings of calm. It all goes back to the parasympathetic nervous system and your “fight or flight” response. Healthy vagus nerve activity is going to counterbalance this response to ensure you are relaxed instead of stressed.
How to stimulate the vagus nerve
You might think it would be difficult to stimulate such a major nerve inside your body, but you’d be surprised just how easy it can be. In fact, chances are you are already stimulating your vagus nerve with some of the activities you already do on a daily basis. Here are some of the most common ways to stimulate your vagus nerve:
1. Vagus nerve exercises
Physical activity is important for all aspects of health, including activating your vagus nerve. Since vagal tone decreases sympathetic nervous system activity, you’ll be able to help lower your overall stress levels. HIIT and other cardio workouts are great options.
More specific exercises linked to increased vagus nerve activity often involve your vocal cords. Singing and loud gargling with water are two ways to activate your vocal cords to stimulate your vagus nerve.
2. Breathing exercises
Breathing might not sound like much, but it’s one of the best ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. In fact, researchers suspect vagus nerve activation, by way of their focus on deep breathing, helps explain why meditation and yoga are so beneficial, because they often incorporate deep breathing to lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate.
In 2010 researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone (AKA, a strong vagus nerve) and good physical and positive emotions (1). Because of this connection between the vagus nerve and emotions, the FDA has approved the use of implantable vagus nerve stimulators as a treatment for depression and epilepsy.
These devices are surgically implanted under your skin on your chest, with a wire threaded under your skin to connect the device to your left vagus nerve. It uses electrical signals from your vagus nerve to your brainstem.
Noninvasive devices- although recently approved by the FDA - are not available mainstream as of this time but have the potential to be in the future to help treat additional conditions such as migraines and other chronic headaches.
4. Other techniques
Since researchers are continuing to learn more about the vagus nerve, they are always discovering additional ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. While often a “treat yourself experience”, getting a massage has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, with studies showing increased vagal activity (2) following the stimulating of pressure receptors during massage therapy.
Another simple way to stimulate the vagus nerve is to get outside in the winter. Since cold temperatures stimulate the vagus nerve, taking a 10 minute walk outside during cooler months can be a simple way to increase vagal tone. But if you can’t bear the thought of going outside during winter, a cold shower will also do the trick!
Is long-term stress affecting your health?
After years working in functional medicine, I know just how much stress can impact your overall health. You can be doing all the “right” things when it comes to wellness and eating the healthiest foods, but if you are feeding your body a slice of stress everyday, it can be almost as detrimental (if not more) as eating that slice of pie.
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we work to take all aspects of your health case into consideration. By addressing lifestyle factors like stress that aren’t given as much weight in mainstream medicine, we are able to make real changes in your health that can move the needle and help you reach your overall health goals.
If you are ready to lower your stress and finally achieve the health you deserve, set up a telehealth consultation! As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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- Kok, Bethany E 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 vol. 24,7 (2013): 1123-32. doi:10.1177/0956797612470827
- Field, Tiffany, and Miguel Diego. “Vagal activity, early growth and emotional development.” Infant behavior & development vol. 31,3 (2008): 361-73. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2007.12.008
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.