Last updated February 27, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.
Optimizing the health and function of the vagus nerve helps you handle stress, reduce chronic inflammation, and produce important neurotransmitters.
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in the body.
It is a major facilitator of what’s known as the mind-body connection.
Optimizing vagus nerve health and 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, while many others are simply tweaks to activities you may already do every day.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The word “vagus” is pronounced “vay-gus,” as in 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 the vagus nerve meanders throughout the body.
It runs from the brain to the digestive tract, connecting many other organs along the way.
The following graphic shows some of the many ways that the vagus nerve affects important organs and systems.
The gut (gastrointestinal or GI system) is sometimes called our “second brain” since it contains 100 million nerve cells, more than are found in our central nervous system.
Scientists call the bundle of nerve fibers found in the digestive tract the enteric nervous system (ENS).
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Jay Pasricha, MD, 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.”
One of the main ways our two brains communicate with each other is by way of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve facilitates two-way communication between the brain and gut 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
Some of the vagus nerve’s most important functions are due to its being a major component of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The autonomic nervous system 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 prepares the body to deal with perceived danger by initiating the fight-or-flight stress response.
Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system prepares the body for rest and has been called the rest-and-digest system.
This relaxed state ideally 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 for the parasympathetic nervous system.
Besides initiating the relaxation response, additional jobs of the vagus nerve include reducing inflammation, storing memories, and keeping the body in a state of balance called homeostasis.
The Vagus Nerve and Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers usually thought of as brain chemicals.
But amazingly, at least 30 neurotransmitters are created in the gastrointestinal tract’s enteric nervous system.
The vagus nerve elicits the output of several important neurotransmitters, especially serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.
Serotonin is linked to positive mood, dopamine to motivation, acetylcholine to learning, and GABA to relaxation.
There’s evidence that one of the ways that the vagus nerve facilitates communication between the brain and the gut is by moving neurotransmitters between them.
" 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.
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 that he called “vagus substance.”
This was later identified as acetylcholine, the first neurotransmitter to be discovered.
Understanding Vagal Tone
The quality of health and function of the vagus nerve is described as vagal tone.
When the vagus nerve is working as it should, you have high vagal tone.
High vagal tone is linked to good physical health, mental well-being, and resilience to stress.
When the 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, it’s likely that you have low vagal tone.
Signs and Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction
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.
Chronic inflammation is a major factor in many diseases of the body and the mind, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Low vagal tone has been linked to a long list of physical and mental health conditions that range from mild to serious.
Here are some symptoms and disorders linked to low vagal tone:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- anxiety disorders
- autoimmune disorders
- bipolar disorder
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- difficulty swallowing
- digestive disorders
- heart disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- slow heart rate
- sudden drops in blood pressure
- tendency to choke while eating
As you can see, the influence of vagal tone on health is both widespread and varied, affecting many major systems.
How to Check Vagus Nerve Function
There are several ways to know if your vagal tone is low.
The 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.”
Look in your mouth using a handheld mirror or have someone else look for you.
You want to look at the 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 emit a rumbling sound; lack of noise can mean low vagal tone.
Measuring Vagal Tone With Heart Rate Variability
Vagal tone isn’t measured directly; scientists and researchers usually measure heart rate variability (HRV) instead.
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.
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 have found that they can accurately determine vagal tone this way in just 10 seconds.
What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
As you can see, there are 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 vagal tone high and keep you healthy.
Some may seem a little offbeat, but all the 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 downside — the inevitable crash and the potential for addiction.
But stimulation of the vagus nerve does not mean 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 thus more responsive, helping 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 6 mind-body exercises and therapies known to improve vagal nerve tone.
Making music is one of the best brain-boosting activities.
It’s one of the few things we can do that activates every known part of the brain.
Stimulating the vagus nerve may be one of the ways music delivers these benefits.
Singing solo or with others stimulates the vagus nerve.
When you sing with others, everyone’s 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.
Exposure to cold increases vagal tone and increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest system.
If you aren’t up to taking a cold shower, you can get similar effects by simply splashing your face with cold water.
2. Meditation, Chanting, and Prayer
Certain kinds of meditation, such as 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.
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 due to their meditation.
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.”
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.
Moderate exercise of any kind can stimulate the vagus nerve, but yoga is a standout.
Numerous studies support that yoga increases parasympathetic nervous system activity which, in turn, improves vagal tone.
Studies have found that yoga is better for improving mood and reducing anxiety than walking.
Yoga not only improves vagal tone but also increases the release of GABA, the neurotransmitter of relaxation.
Similar mind-body exercises such as tai chi and qi gong increase heart rate variability and help normalize the parasympathetic nervous system as well.
If you do cardiovascular exercises such as running, biking, or swimming, do it in moderation since too much cardio exercise reduces vagal tone.
4. Breathing Techniques
Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) is a sequence of breathing techniques that stimulates the vagus nerve.
SKY has also been found to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, everyday and traumatic stress, and stress-related illnesses.
An even simpler breathing technique involves breathing in slowly and then making your exhalation longer than your inhalation.
A good rule of thumb is four seconds in and eight seconds out.
Just two minutes of this breathing pattern has been found to engage the vagus nerve and increase HRV.
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 in which acupuncture works is by strengthening vagal tone.
Traditional acupuncture points, particularly those on the external ear, stimulate the vagus nerve.
Reflexology works similarly to acupuncture but, rather than using needles, it uses finger pressure on acupressure points.
Foot reflexology has been found to increase vagal tone in both healthy subjects and patients with heart disease.
Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils and other aromatic compounds to improve physical or psychological well-being.
Inhaling relaxing essential oils such as lavender and bergamot increase heart rate variability.
Interestingly, some research indicates that the use of essential oils isn’t necessary.
Just getting a whiff of any scent that you find pleasant or that evokes happy memories modulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
This could be the aroma of coffee brewing, fresh laundry, or your favorite flower.
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.
Vagal stimulation causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone called the “molecule of connection” because it promotes bonding.
Oxytocin has been linked to such admirable traits as loyalty, empathy, trustworthiness, cooperation, and courage.
Research has discovered that a positive feedback loop between uplifting social connections, positive emotions, and physical health is set in motion by improved vagal tone.
Seek out friends you can laugh with.
Laughter strengthens relationships and promotes bonding while increasing heart rate variability, a reliable indicator of healthy vagus nerve function.
Nutrition for a Healthy Vagus Nerve
For optimal vagal nerve tone, avoid eating either a high fat or high carbohydrate diet.
Eating either has been found to impair vagus nerve function.
There are a few supplements that may improve vagus nerve health and function:
- probiotics (specifically Lactobacillus rhamnosus)
- omega-3 essential fatty acids (especially DHA)
Each of these supplements offers significant overall and mental health benefits as well.
Weird Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, is an award-winning Harvard Medical School 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.
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 lie on your right side.
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.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Devices and Apps
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can be used as a medical treatment for hard-to-treat cases of epilepsy and major depressive disorder.
In the past 20 years, more than 100,000 patients have had a small device surgically implanted to deliver electrical impulses to the vagus nerve.
And now, personal vagus nerve stimulation devices are available to the public.
Xen by Neuvana claims to be the first non-invasive, “recreational” vagus nerve stimulator; it delivers a signal that can be synchronized to your choice of music.
When you purchase Xen, you get a patented handheld device and special earbuds that deliver electrical stimulation to your ear, purportedly stimulating the vagus nerve.
Oric is an app developed by a team of engineers and sound specialists that claims to stimulate your vagus nerve with your favorite music.
There is both a free and paid version of this app, but you’ll need a headset and an iPhone (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.
Neuvana’s website clearly states that it is designed to increase overall wellness rather than treat medical conditions.
And note that even medical VNS is not a quick fix — it can take several months before you experience the full effects.
So, it’s not reasonable to expect anything more from a personal device or app.
VNS technology is still in its infancy.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve: Take the Next Step
The vagus nerve facilitates communication between the brain and many other organs and it’s a major facilitator of the mind-body connection.
An optimally functioning vagus nerve is essential for 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, breathing techniques) and therapies (acupuncture, aromatherapy).
There’s also a variety of other ways to improve vagal tone, such as spending time with friends, laughter, cold showers, and taking the right supplements.
And finally, there are personal vagus nerve stimulation devices you can use at home.
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