Optimizing function of the vagus nerve helps you handle stress, control inflammation, and form neurotransmitters.
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in your body.
It is a major facilitator of what’s known as the mind-body connection.
Optimizing vagus nerve function can make you healthier, happier, and better able to handle stress.
There are a surprising number of ways to stimulate your vagus nerve.
Some are pretty unusual, but many are simply tweaks to activities you may already do every day.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The word “vagus” is pronounced like Las Vegas, the city.
You’ve heard that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but this is definitely not true of the vagus nerve!
It helps regulate functions throughout the body.
The vagus nerve gets its unusual name from the Latin word vagus, which means vagrant or wandering, because it meanders throughout your body.
It runs from your brain to your digestive tract, connecting many of your other organs along the way.
Here’s a look at some of the many ways the vagus nerve affects important organs and systems.
Your gut is sometimes called the “second brain” since it contains 100 million nerve cells which, surprisingly, is more than is found in your central nervous system! (1)
Scientists call this bundle of nerve fibers found throughout your digestive tract the enteric nervous system (ENS).
Dr. Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, is a renowned expert on the enteric nervous system.
“The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain — with profound results.” (2)
One of the mains ways these two brains communicate with each other is by way of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve facilitates two-way communication between your brain and your intestines and consequently plays a very important role in the mind-body connection.
Whenever you have a “gut feeling,” find something “gut wrenching,” or get “butterflies in your stomach,” you’re experiencing the gut-brain connection that occurs via the vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve’s Role in the Relaxation Response
The vagus nerve has a wide variety of functions, but some of the most important are due to its role as a major component of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls involuntary body functions such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing.
The ANS is divided into two main branches, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) prepares your body to deal with perceived danger by initiating the fight-or-flight stress response.
Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) prepares your body for rest and has been called your rest-and-digest system.
This relaxed state should be your default state, but if you struggle with burdensome stress or anxiety, this is probably not the case.
The vagus nerve is a major conduit of the parasympathetic nervous system. (3)
Besides initiating the relaxation response, additional jobs of the vagus nerve include reducing inflammation, helping to store memories, and keeping your body in a state of balance called homeostasis. (4, 5, 6, 7)
The vagus nerve elicits the output of many important neurotransmitters especially GABA, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine. (8)
In a roundabout way, the vagus nerve is responsible for the discovery of neurotransmitters.
In the 192os, a German scientist discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve slowed heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he called “vagus substance.”
This was later identified as acetylcholine, the first neurotransmitter to be discovered. (9)
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Signs and Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction
The health and function of your vagus nerve is described as vagal tone.
When your vagus nerve is working as it should, it’s said that you have high vagal tone.
High vagal tone is linked to good physical health, mental well-being, and resilience to stress.
When your vagus nerve isn’t working as well as it should, you have low vagal tone.
If you are easily stressed out and have trouble calming down after experiencing stress, you may well have low vagal tone.
Since one of the vagus nerve’s many functions is to act as an “on-off” switch for inflammation, low vagal tone often leads to chronic inflammation — a major factor in many diseases of the body and the mind including ADHD, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (10, 11)
Low vagal tone has been linked a long list of physical and mental health conditions that range from mild to serious.
- Alzheimer’s disease
- anxiety disorders
- autoimmune disorders
- bipolar disorder
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- difficulty swallowing
- digestive disorders
- heart disease, including slow heart rate
- rheumatoid arthritis
- sudden drops in blood pressure
- tendency to choke while eating
As you can see, the influence of vagal tone on health is widespread, affecting many major systems.
How to Check Vagus Nerve Function
There are several ways to know if your vagal tone is low.
First is a surprisingly simple way to check the health of your vagus nerve yourself that even doctors use.
Have you ever wondered why they tell you to open your mouth and say “ahh?”
Among other things, this is a simple way to check the health of your vagus nerve.
You can do this yourself at home.
Open your mouth wide and say “ahh.”
You can look in your mouth using a handheld mirror or have someone else look for you.
You want to look at your uvula, the small protrusion that dangles at the back of your throat.
When you say “ahh” the uvula should rise.
If your vagus nerve isn’t working well, it won’t rise much.
You can also press down on your tongue to check your gag reflex.
If you gag that’s a good sign, but if you don’t gag much that means your vagal nerve tone is low.
Another thing doctors do is listen to your abdomen with a stethoscope.
It should rumble; lack of noise can mean low vagal tone.
Measuring Vagal Tone with Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability describes a naturally occurring fluctuation in heart rhythm and is an excellent indicator of how “toned” or responsive your vagus nerve is. (20)
You can measure your heart rate variability at home using a personal HRV device such as the emWave2.
A more sophisticated way to determine the health of your vagus nerve is with an electrocardiogram (ECG).
An ECG is considered the “gold standard” method for measuring heart rate variability.
Researchers found that they could accurately determine vagal tone this way in just 10 seconds! (21)
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What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
As you can see, there’s a lot of good reasons to keep your vagus nerve functioning at its best.
People with high vagal tone are healthier, happier, and more resilient to stress.
There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to keep vagus tone high and healthy.
Some may seem a little offbeat, but all methods presented here are based on science.
Before we look at the ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, let’s be clear about what this means.
When you hear the word “stimulation,” you might rightly question whether that is a good thing.
You might associate stimulation with getting wired with stimulants like caffeine and worry about the downsides — the inevitable crash and the potential for addiction.
But vagus nerve stimulation is not the same thing.
Researchers more accurately use the term vagus nerve modulation meaning the capacity to regulate or bring into balance.
So things that stimulate your vagus nerve, in fact, are toning and strengthening it, just as exercise tones and strengthens your muscles.
A healthier vagus nerve is more responsive which helps you recover from stress more quickly.
Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Using the Mind-Body Connection
Now that you’re aware of how the vagus nerve connects your brain with the rest of you, the mind-body connection should seem a little less mysterious.
Here are mind-body exercises and therapies known to improve vagus nerve tone:
Making music is one of the best brain-boosting activities.
It’s one of the few things you can do that activates every known part of the brain. (22)
Stimulating the vagus nerve may be one of the ways music delivers these benefits.
Singing solo or with others stimulates the vagus nerve. (23)
When you sing with others, your heart rates actually synchronize and it’s thought the vagus nerve is responsible for this.
If you like to sing in the shower, you can double up your vagal stimulation by finishing off with a blast of cold water.
If you aren’t up to taking a cold shower, you can get similar effects by simply splashing your face with cold water.
Meditation, Chanting, and Prayer
Certain kinds of meditation, such as the loving-kindness meditation, have been found to effectively stimulate the vagus nerve.
During a loving-kindness meditation, you focus on having loving, compassionate thoughts towards both yourself and others. (26)
One study found that simply meditating did not automatically help in toning the vagus nerve.
This occurred only in those who felt happier and more connected to others from their meditations. (27)
When researchers studied the effects of both prayer and reciting a mantra on heart rate rhythms, an indicator of vagal tone, they called the effects “striking and powerful.” (28)
Meditation that involves chanting the sound “om” is called an om meditation.
Om chanting has been found to increase vagal tone while also reducing activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. (29)
Yoga and Tai Chi
Moderate exercise of any kind can stimulate the vagus nerve, but yoga is a standout. (30)
One study found that yoga was better than walking for improving mood and reducing anxiety.
Yoga not only improved vagal tone but increased the release of GABA, the neurotransmitter of relaxation. (33)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How to Do Yoga for Depression and Anxiety (and why)
Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) is a sequence of breathing techniques that stimulates the vagus nerve.
SKY has also has been found to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, everyday and traumatic stress, and stress-related illnesses. (34)
If you do cardiovascular exercise such as running, biking, or swimming, do it in moderation since too much exercise reduces vagal tone. (37)
Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice that is said to balance the flow of the body’s vital energy, known as chi or qi.
One of the evidence-based ways acupuncture works is by strengthening vagal tone. (38)
Traditional acupuncture points, particularly those in the ear, stimulate the vagus nerve. (39)
Reflexology is similar to acupuncture but, rather than using needles, it uses finger pressure on active acupoints.
Foot reflexology has been found to increase vagal tone in both healthy subjects and patients with heart disease. (40)
Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils and other aromatic compounds for improving physical or psychological well-being.
Interestingly, some research indicates that essential oils aren’t necessary.
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Stimulate the Vagus Nerve with Love and Laughter
Enjoying healthy relationships is another key to maintaining the health of the vagus nerve.
People with better vagal tone are more altruistic and have more harmonious close relationships. (45)
Vagal stimulation causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone called the “molecule of connection” because it promotes bonding. (46)
Research has discovered that there is a positive feedback loop between uplifting social connections, positive emotions, and physical health set in motion by vagal tone. (49)
Seek out friends you can laugh with.
Supplements That Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
There are a handful of supplements that may improve vagus nerve health and function:
- ginger root (Zingiber officinale) (52)
- probiotics (specifically Lactobacillus rhamnosus) (53)
- omega-3 essential fatty acids (especially DHA) (54, 55, 56)
- zinc (57)
Each of these supplements offers significant additional overall and mental health benefits.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Search our site to find comprehensive articles on these and other brain supplements.
Weird Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, is an award-winning Harvard Medical Schoool research fellow and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?
He recommends that all his patients with low vagal tone gargle to stimulate the vagus nerve.
He also suggests initiating the gag reflex several times a day.
The simplest way to do this is to brush the back of your tongue with your toothbrush.
In case you hadn’t heard, tongue brushing is the new flossing — another oral hygiene task to add to the list!
Oddly, your sleeping position can help or hinder your efforts to stimulate your vagus nerve.
The best position for stimulating the vagus nerve is to lay on your right side. (58)
The worst position? Sleeping on your back.
And finally, eat less food and eat less often.
Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting have been shown to increase vagal tone, at least in lab animals. (59)
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Devices and Apps
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a medical treatment for hard-to-treat cases of epilepsy and major depressive disorder. (60)
In the past 20 years, more than 100,000 patients have had a small device surgically implanted that delivers electrical impulses to the vagus nerve. (61)
It was only a matter of time before personal vagus nerve stimulation devices would become available to the public.
Nervana claims to be the first non-invasive, “recreational” vagus nerve stimulator that delivers a signal that can be synchronized to your choice of music.
When you purchase Nervana, you get a handheld device about the size of a smartphone and special earbuds that deliver electrical stimulation to your ear which theoretically stimulates the vagus nerve.
It’s due to be available in the winter of 2019.
Oric is an app developed by a team of engineers and sound specialists that supposedly stimulates your vagus nerve with your favorite music.
This app is free but you’ll need a headset and an iPhone since it’s not available for Android.
If you decide to give either devices or apps a try, be aware that there’s skepticism in the scientific community whether they work as advertised. (62)
Nervana’s website clearly states that it “does not claim to treat medical conditions.”
And note that even medical VNS is not a quick fix — it can take several months before the effects are fully experienced.
So it’s not reasonable to expect anything more from a personal device or app.
VNS technology is in its infancy and almost certainly will improve going forward.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve: Take the Next Step
The vagus nerve facilitates communication between your brain and many other organs, and is a major facilitator of the mind-body connection.
An optimally functioning vagus nerve is essential for true mental and physical health.
Its many vital functions include managing the stress response, keeping inflammation under control, and promoting the formation of neurotransmitters.
You can strengthen your vagus nerve function with mind-body activities (singing, meditation, yoga, prayer) and therapies (acupuncture, aromatherapy).
There’s a variety of other ways to improve vagal tone, such as spending time with friends, laughter, cold showers, and the right supplements.