12 Ways on How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Naturally and Why It Matters

May 29, 20248 min
Tips on How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Naturally

What is a Vagus Nerve?

Have you heard of the vagus nerve before? It is one of the special types of the cranial nerve that connects our body and brainstem. It has multiple pathways to different parts of the body like ears, throat, heart, and lungs. 

What makes the vagus nerve special is that it acts as the communication channel between the body and the brain. It helps our body to respond quickly to the things happening in and around us. It also acts as the body's peacekeeper by regulating our stress response and promoting relaxation to maintain balance and well-being. 

Here are some of the important functions of the vagus nerve: 

1. It calms us down:

When we experience stress, our body's natural response is to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response. After the stress is over, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, to help our body rest, repair, and relax.  

The vagus nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It triggers the release of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, which have a calming effect on the body. By stimulating the vagus nerve, we can counteract this decrease in activity and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

2. Helps with digestion: 

The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in digestion by sending signals from the brain to the stomach and intestines. These signals help regulate various digestive processes, including the release of digestive enzymes, the movement of food through the digestive tract, and the contraction of stomach muscles to aid in digestion. Additionally, the vagus nerve helps coordinate the communication between the brain and the gut, influencing feelings of hunger and fullness.

3. Involved in reflexes

The vagus nerve is involved in reflex action by facilitating quick communication between the brain and different parts of the body. 

12 Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally

Imagine a nerve that acts like a body's "off switch" for stress. That's what the vagus nerve does! Stimulating this nerve with VNS (Vagus Nerve Stimulation) helps our body to relax. It can lower anxiety, regulate heart rate and digestion, and improve mood. By calming the body's stress response, VNS can help us in our overall well-being.

The vagus nerve operates automatically to ensure our safety without conscious effort, maintaining this protective function throughout our lives. While our body responds automatically with a fight-flight response to perceived or real danger, we can learn to identify, manage, and regulate effectively to manage our response to stressful situations. Practicing techniques to modulate our nervous system can enhance resilience and facilitate better recovery from stressful situations

One way to do this is by enhancing our vagal tone. Vagal tone simply refers to the activity level of the vagus nerve. A high vagal tone is like having our “calm switch” turned on, which promotes a sense of relaxation and well-being. Below are several exercises for stimulating the vagus nerve:

1.Breath Work: 

Breathwork is a simple way to improve vagal tone and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Some breathwork techniques are:

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: This involves deep breathing that engages the diaphragm, the muscle beneath the lungs. As we inhale deeply, our diaphragm contracts, promoting vagus nerve stimulation and inducing a sense of calm.
  • Breath Holds: Another technique involves holding our breath for a few moments after inhaling deeply. This brief pause can also stimulate the vagus nerve. Try inhaling deeply, holding your breath for a few seconds, and then exhaling slowly.
  • Extended Exhalations: Lengthening our exhales to be twice as long as our inhales is another effective way to activate the vagus nerve. This can be achieved by inhaling deeply and then exhaling slowly and fully, focusing on extending the exhale phase to stimulate the vagus nerve response.

2.Laugh out Loud (Seriously, LOL): 

Laughter is like a natural tonic for our body and mind, and it's also great for our vagus nerve! When we laugh, our body sends signals to our brain that everything is happy and okay. This activates the vagus nerve, which helps our body relax. So, the next time you are feeling stressed or down, try watching a funny movie or spending time with friends who make you laugh. It's not just fun — it's good for your vagus nerve too!

3.Cold Water Face Submersion: 

Holding our breath and submerging our face in cold water can trigger the “diving reflex,” a response that slows the heartbeat and constricts blood vessels. These simple methods quickly tap into the body's natural responses to cold, which can help regulate the nervous system and promote relaxation. 

4.Chanting: 

Chanting involves singing or repeating certain sounds or words rhythmically. When we chant, we use our voice in a specific pattern, which can have a calming effect on our body and mind.

When we chant in a deep tone, it stimulates the muscles in the back of our throat. These muscles are connected to the vagus nerve. When these muscles are activated, they give our vagus nerve a gentle massage, helping us feel more peaceful and centered.

5.Gargling: 

The act of gargling, especially with cool water, is like giving our “calm switch” a little nudge. When we gargle, we move the muscles in the back of our throat which are connected to the vagus nerve. This can help our body relax and feel better overall.

6.Exercise: 

Exercise is like a superhero for our body, and it can also give our vagus nerve a boost! When we move our body during exercise, whether it's running, dancing, or walking, it activates the vagus nerve. Also, stress hormones can cause weight gain.

Research has shown that exercise stimulates the vagus nerve and enhances the vagal tone. So, next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, try going for a walk or doing some exercise. 

7.Massage: 

Research supports the idea that massage can boost vagus nerve activity. For instance, a study found that gentle touch, like massage, can increase vagal activity, which is linked to feelings of relaxation and well-being.

Massage is like giving our body a gentle hug The act of massaging the body activates sensory receptors under our skin, giving our body a gentle hug, which stimulates our vagus nerve.  

8.Humming:

Humming regulates our breathing pattern, encouraging slow, deep breaths, which further enhances vagal tone. As a result, humming can promote a sense of calmness and relaxation, making it a simple yet effective technique for vagus nerve stimulation. So, next time you feel stressed or anxious, try humming a soothing tune to help soothe your nerves.

9.Probiotics:

While probiotics primarily support gut health, emerging research suggests they may indirectly influence vagus nerve function. A study found that participants who consumed a specific probiotic strain, Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001, experienced improvements in mood and alterations in brain activity. This study suggests a potential link between probiotics, gut health, and mood regulation, possibly mediated by the vagus nerve. 

10.Praying:

Praying can potentially stimulate the vagus nerve through its calming effects. When individuals pray, they often enter a state of deep relaxation and focus, which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This activation can lead to increased vagal tone, promoting feelings of calmness and reduced stress levels.

11.Meditation: 

During meditation, individuals typically engage in slow, deep breathing, which can directly activate the vagus nerve and enhance vagal tone—the measure of the vagus nerve's activity. According to research, meditation practices often involve focusing attention on the present moment and cultivating positive emotions, such as compassion and gratitude. These mental states are associated with increased vagal tone and improved overall well-being. Additionally, meditation may reduce stress and anxiety levels, which can indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve by calming the body's stress response.

12.Singing:

According to research, singing can help stimulate the vagus nerve in a couple of ways. First, when we sing, we use muscles in our throat and belly that are connected to the vagus nerve. This physical activity can directly activate the nerve, making us feel relaxed and less stressed. Secondly, when we sing, we naturally take deep breaths with longer exhales. This kind of breathing is good for stimulating the vagus nerve, making it more active. It's like giving our body a gentle massage from the inside!

FAQs of the Vagus Nerve

Does cold water stimulate the vagus nerve?

Yes, cold water immersion, such as splashing cold water on our face or submerging our body in cold water, can stimulate the vagus nerve. When our body is exposed to cold water, especially on the face, it triggers a response known as the "diving reflex." This reflex is an evolutionary adaptation that slows down the heart rate and constricts blood vessels to conserve oxygen and help us withstand cold temperatures.

Does yoga stimulate the vagus nerve?

Yes, yoga can stimulate the vagus nerve. Yoga involves a combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques, all of which can activate the vagus nerve in different ways.

  • Physical postures in yoga, especially those that involve deep stretching and twisting, can stimulate the vagus nerve by engaging the muscles around the neck and throat, where the vagus nerve runs.
  • Breathing exercises in yoga, such as deep belly breathing and alternate nostril breathing, can also stimulate the vagus nerve by regulating the breath and promoting relaxation.

Does stimulation of the vagus nerve affect heart rate[increased/decreased]?

Think of the vagus nerve as a controller for our body's relaxation mode. When it's stimulated, it tells our body to slow down. So, if something activates the vagus nerve, like deep breathing or certain methods like those mentioned above, it can make our heart beat slower. This effect is often referred to as "vagal tone" and is part of the body's natural mechanisms for maintaining cardiovascular homeostasis or stability in our body.

Does stimulation of the vagus nerve affect blood pressure/level [lowers/higher]?

Yes, stimulation of the vagus nerve typically leads to a decrease in blood pressure. When the vagus nerve is activated, it sends signals to various organs, including the heart and blood vessels, to relax and reduce their activity. As a result, blood vessels dilate (widen), allowing blood to flow more freely, and the heart beats more slowly, reducing the force with which blood is pumped. This combined effect helps to lower blood pressure.

Does yawning stimulate the vagus nerve?

Yes, yawning can stimulate the vagus nerve. Yawning is a reflexive action that involves deep inhalation followed by a slow exhalation. This deep breathing pattern can activate the vagus nerve, which plays a role in regulating breathing and other bodily functions. Stimulating the vagus nerve through yawning may help promote relaxation and reduce stress. 

Is the vagus nerve involved in coughing?

The vagus nerve plays an important in making sure our cough reflex works properly. When something irritates our throat or airways, like dust or mucus, special receptors in those areas sense this irritation and send a message through the vagus nerve. Without it, our brain would not know when something is irritating our throat or when to cough. 

Conclusion

Vagus nerve stimulation can significantly positively affect our physical and mental well-being. The benefits of vagus nerve stimulation include relaxation, reduced stress, and improved bodily functions like digestion and cardiovascular health. By incorporating simple practices like deep breathing, meditation, laughter, and gentle exercise into our daily routines, we can harness the power of the vagus nerve to support overall health and vitality. 

References

Goggins, E., Mitani, S., & Tanaka, S. (2022). Clinical perspectives on vagus nerve stimulation: Present and future. Clinical Science (London, England: 1979), 136(9), 695-709. 

Kyriakoulis P, Kyrios M, Nardi AE, Freire RC and Schier M (2021) The Implications of the Diving Response in Reducing Panic Symptoms. Front. Psychiatry 12:784884. 

Mäkinen TM, Mäntysaari M, Pääkkönen T, Jokelainen J, Palinkas LA, Hassi J, Leppäluoto J, Tahvanainen K, Rintamäki H. Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2008 Sep;79(9):875-82. doi: 10.3357/asem.2235.2008. PMID: 18785356.

Zeng X, Chiu CP, Wang R, Oei TP, Leung FY. The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: a meta-analytic review. Front Psychol. 2015 Nov 3;6:1693. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693. PMID: 26579061; PMCID: PMC4630307.

Weinstein, D., Launay, J., Pearce, E., Dunbar, R. I., & Stewart, L. (2016). Singing and social bonding: Changes in connectivity and pain threshold as a function of group size. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(2), 152-158. 

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Mave
Clinical Psychologist