The Importance of the Vagus Nerve and 8 ways to

Tone it

There’s a single nerve that connects all of your vital organs — and it might just be the future of medicine’ Gaia Vince, Science Journalist

The vagus nerve is often dubbed the wondering or travelling nerve, is the king of nerves, the largest most sprawling of all that starts in your brainstem, behind you ears. It continues down both sides of the neck and into the chest and abdomen. It has hundreds and thousands of nerve fibres stretching out throughout your entire body acting as a two-way messenger between your organs and your brain and plays a vital part in keeping us healthy. It forms part of the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system; the ‘rest, relax, recharge and digest’ branch rather that the sympathetic branch that we refer to as ‘fight, flight or freeze’. The parasympathetic branch calms the body back down after stress and the vagus nerve is vital to this calming process.

“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain and it stimulates digestion. All those things that happen when we are relaxed.” — Dr. Golubic, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic

Not all vagus nerves are equal. Some people have better, stronger, more ‘toned’ vagus nerves, they probably don’t even know it, but they can be identified by how quickly they relax after stress. They have healthier bodies, better memories, superior concentration and are more likely to be happy and have close friendships. In fact, they are healthier in all ways – psychologically and physiologically.

Low vagal tone is associated with all sorts of health risks, from chronic inflammation to cardiovascular issues, higher stress levels, higher risk of depression and mood disorders and gut problems.  To some extent the ‘tone’ is genetically predetermined. But if your gene pool has determined a lacklustre vagus nerve, the good news is you can tone it up by stimulating it and the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve 

8 ways to tone your vagus nerve:

1. Humming. Yes, literally humming has a toning effect on the vagus nerve. When we hum, we vibrate the muscle fibres in the backs of our throats, an area the vagus nerve is located. Perhaps you’ve seen clips of people sat crossed legged, meditating and humming – they were onto something. Combining humming with yogic/meditative breathing directly stimulate the nerve fibres in the vagus nerve, strengthening it. Communal singing or chanting have a similar, beneficial effect. As does the lesser practiced art of gargling.

2. Cold Water. Several of my clients report the positive effects of cold showers on their anxiety levels, and I have to admit I weirdly enjoy a cold bath a few times a week. Plunging yourself into cold water is one of the best ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, increasing parasympathetic activity by slowing an elevated heart rate, reducing feelings of anxiety, panic, stress, and body-wide inflammation as well as elevating your mood. Don’t mock it till you’ve tried it, start with a 30 second cold blast at the end of your shower and work up from there.

3.Meditation: A powerful stimulator of the vagus nerve. No surprise there, we know meditation calms and centres us. Finding the right meditative technique for you is the key as they range from active to passive and it is a case of trial and error. When you find one that works, stick with it, consistent meditation will quickly improve your vagal tone.

4.Pro and Prebiotics. Arguably the biggest influencer on vagal tone is the trillions of microbes that reside in our gut. We are learning more and more about the brain/gut connection and how maintaining healthy gut bacteria can reduce the risk of psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Probiotics are the good gut bacteria and prebiotics are food for the good bacteria. This army of bacteria communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. Eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi or simply a wide variety of fruits and vegetables help to maintain the good bugs in the gut and increase vagal nerve activation.

5.Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3 Fatty Acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself but have shown to positively affect vagus nerve functioning.  They are found primarily in fish and have been proved to increase heart rate variability (a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat) as well as lowering heart rate, both markers of optimal vagus nerve function. Two servings of oily fish a week, like salmon or sardines, will do it. If you’re not a fish fan, nuts and seeds are good, or you can supplement.

6.Deep breathing. Whilst breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system it is also a process that we can control. Deep belly breathing, and in particular, long exhales, immediate stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic response. As I settle clients into hypnosis, I usually suggest breathing out for longer than they are breathing in for. 

7.Exercise. We all know this is good for our physical and mental health, so it comes as no surprise that exercise strengthens our vagus nerve. However, over exercise reduces vagal tone. Working out at a level that makes you feel good, and this can be different for all of us,

8.Massage. Massage can stimulate and tone the vagus nerve; in case we need another excuse to indulge in one. The areas to massage for optimum vagal nerve nurturing are your feet or head and neck and ……ears!

Using any or all these methods to stimulate and strengthen your vagus nerve. Wake up your parasympathetic nervous system more regularly and enjoy long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing, and resilience.