Did you know that your stamina, gut health, blood sugar levels, heart rate variability, inflammation, emotional well-being, and even your ability to create lasting positive social connections, are all directly influenced by your vagus nerve?
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It is either one of two cranial nerves which extend from the brain stem all the way to the intestines. It connects the brain to many important organs including the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, and gallbladder. It’s involved in controlling the immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, and endocrine systems.
The goal of the vagus nerve is to keep the body in a state of homeostasis, where all internal systems are stable and running at a reasonable speed for the conditions.
It plays an important role in activating the parasympathetic function (calming, rest, digest, relax and repair) of the nervous system and turning off the stress, hyper-aroused, fight, flight and freeze sympathetic response.
As a major nerve of the parasympathetic system, the vagus nerve reflects your body’s ability to regulate inflammation, glucose, gut physiology, and heart rate.
The vagus nerve is responsible for several key functions in the body, including, but not limited to:
- Influencing the HPA function (hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal axis)
- Lowering heart rate
- Decreasing inflammation
- Lowering blood pressure
- Stimulating blood sugar balance
- Connecting the brain to the gut
- Managing stress and anxiety
- Increasing stomach acidity and helping with digestive enzyme production
- Controlling bile in Gall Bladder to help break down fats
- Promoting water balance in the kidneys
- Influencing fertility and sexual pleasure
What Is Vagal Tone?
Vagal tone is the degree of activity occurring within the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in changes to the heart rate and other key functions. The vagus nerve, among many other things, inhibits the heart beat to keep the organ beating within a safe range. When the vagal tone increases or decreases, a patient will experience changes in heart rate, and these can sometimes become dangerous or even fatal.
When vagal tone is increased, we experience an abnormally slow heart rate (bradycardia) and when vagal tone is decreased, we develop an abnormally rapid heart rate (tachycardia). This can be the result of a temporary situation, or a long term health problem.
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale.
Why Vagal Tone Matters
Vagal tone is essentially how healthy or “toned” the vagus nerve is. The higher the vagal tone, the easier it is to get into a relaxed state.
Research published in Psychological Science in 2013 shows a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, good physical health, and good emotional health. Although the researchers admit “the mechanisms underlying the association between positive emotions and physical health remain a mystery,” they did establish a connection between a toned vagal nerve and better physical and emotional health. The reverse is also true. The better your physical and emotional health, the better your vagal tone.
In functional medicine, research now shows that this nerve may be a missing link to treating chronic inflammation.
If you are perfectly healthy, you might be asking, how does this affect me? The truth is that, vagal nerve function is important to everyone in this day and age. Even if you are incredibly healthy, it is possible to lower your stress levels rapidly and operate with more consistent energy with high vagal tone.
Low Vagal Tone Impact On Your Overall Health
Low vagal tone is associated with:
- Anxiety, depression and mood disorders
- Headaches and migraines
- Poor satiety or inability to relax while eating
- Insomnia, interrupted sleep
- Poor breathing patterns
- A dysregulated, overactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis
- Difficulty meditating
- Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid secretion)
- Gallbladder issues. Low or slow bile acid production making it harder to digest fats and clear toxins
- Dysbiosis, constipation, intestinal bacterial overgrowth
- Poor absorption of nutrients, digestive and GI problems such as IBS
- Hiatal hernia
- Chronic fatigue
- Food sensitivities
- Poor blood flow to kidneys
- Higher blood pressure
- Poor glucose control
- Poor heart rate variability and greater risk of cardiovascular conditions, heart disease and stroke
- High resting heart rate
- Frequent urination
- Cognitive impairment
- Chronic inflammation and greater rates of inflammatory conditions, including all autoimmune diseases (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, inflammatory bowel disease and more)
“Depending on the frequency of vagal stimulation, we know it can turn off an asthma attack, an epileptic seizure, a migraine or cluster headache, and it can reduce the perception of acid reflux.” – Stephen Silberstein, MD, a professor of neurology and director of the Headache Center at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals
Natural Methods To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve
Just as regular exercise keeps your muscles healthy and strong, constant stimulation of neurons keeps them healthy and strong. This is especially true for your vagus nerve. Neurological exercises have been shown to increase the function of the vagus pathway. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been shown to improve conditions such as:
- Inflammatory bowel disorders
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
- Metabolic syndrom
- Leaky gut
- Mood disorders
- Heart disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
There is an FDA regulated device that you can have implanted in the body. It sends electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. But there are other ways of stimulating the vagus nerve without surgery, devices, or side effects. Vagal stimulation methods are easy to perform at home.
Below are 10 such methods to improve poor vagal tone and gut-brain axis failure:
1. Cold Therapy
Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases – and this is all mediated by the vagus nerve.
Try taking cold showers often, splashing cold water on your face every morning, or stepping briefly outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing. Ease your way to cold exposure by finishing your shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time. You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice-cold water.
2. Deep Breathing
Vagal stimulation can cause relaxation but the opposite is also true. Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
Implement a 10-minute deep breathing routine daily. You may use an app such as Insight Timer to help guide you through such exercises.
3. Singing, Humming, Gargling
Singing and humming may be relaxing on their own, but there’s a physiological reason for it. The vagus nerve passes through by the vocal cords and the inner ear. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that singing, humming, and even gargling can help activate it.
Try singing loudly on a daily basis. Sing as loudly as you can when you are in your car or at home. This works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus.
Not comfortable singing? Try humming to influence your nervous system states. Simply pick your favorite tune and you’re ready to go.
Try gargling with water several times a day. The vagus nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. Gargling contracts these muscles, which activate the vagus nerve and stimulate the gastrointestinal tract. Drink several large glasses of water per day and gargle each sip until you finish the glass of water. Gargle long enough and deep enough to make it a bit challenging. It will not work unless it is more challenging. Do this exercise for several weeks to help strengthen the vagal pathways. This is discussed in more in Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?
4. Wave Vibration
Wave vibration has been heavily studied by the scientific community for its health benefits. This therapy involves standing on an oscillating plate that produces low-level vibrations. These vibrations then create positive stress throughout the body (like the kind of stress created by exercise). This stress activates the vagal nerve among other parts of the body. Researchers have determined exercising on a vibration plate can be as effective as conventional exercise, but with less time and effort.
Check your gym as to whether they have vibration platforms available. Or, purchase your own wave vibration platform online. Different vibration platforms have different specs, so please compare brands. Ideally the wave vibration platform will have a wide range of motion, not just side to side, but also up and down, and back to front.
Rebounding is also an effective form of wave vibration. A rebounder is essentially a mini trampoline with a fancy name. It is a budget-friendly way to get the benefits of wave vibration and they are good for your lymphatic system too! There are budget models for as low as around $70 or fancier models that cost a little more.
In 2010, Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok recruited around 70 university staff members for an experiment. Each volunteer was asked to record the strength of emotions they felt every day. Vagal tone was measured at the beginning of the experiment and at the end, nine weeks later. As part of the experiment, half of the participants were taught a meditation technique to promote feelings of goodwill towards themselves and others.
Those who meditated showed a significant rise in vagal tone, which was associated with reported increases in positive emotions. “That was the first experimental evidence that if you increased positive emotions and that led to increased social closeness, then vagal tone changed,” Kok says.
Implement a 20-minute meditation routine daily. You may use an app such as Insight Timer to help guide you through different types of meditation techniques.
Add “toning your vagus nerve” to your long list of reasons to do yoga. The practice incorporates diaphragmatic breathing, forward-bends, putting the hands above the head, chanting and stress reduction, all of which stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Most people still view massage as a luxury item. They place it on their wish rather than todo list. But massage should be considered as a necessity just like eating healthy and working out. In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits of this ancient healing practice.
Research suggests that massage can be beneficial in stimulating the vagus nerve. In one 2012 study premature infants who were massaged had greater weight gain due to vagal activity. Foot reflexology can also help improve vagal tone. According to a study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, foot reflexology increased vagal modulation, decreased sympathetic modulation, and lowered blood pressure.
Schedule regular 60-90 minutes massage treatments, preferably at least once or twice per month.
Acupuncture stimulates the vagal nerve. Studies have shown that acupuncture regulates vagal activity and helps to improve your gastrointestinal health, respiratory system, and heart health. The effect of acupuncture in improving vagal tone can also protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
9. Bitters Herbs and Foods
Bitter herbs and foods aid digestion and stimulate the vagus nerve. There are a wide variety of bitter foods and herbs. Some of them are best taken as a tea to help your body register the bitter taste to get the digestive juices flowing. Some bitter foods and herbs include:
- Bitter melon and gourd
- Dark chocolate
- Fenugreek seeds
- Japanese eggplant
- Leafy greens
- Milk thistle
Studies show that laughter boosts resiliency in the immune system by increasing count and activity of natural killer cells, T cells, antibodies, and interferon. Apparently, it has been shown to also improve vagal tone through reducing the muscle tension in the face, neck and diaphragm. Just more proof that laugher really is the best medicine. :-)
Please be patient with these methods. It will take some time to strengthen vagal tone and the gut-brain axis. You may need to perform them for several weeks to produce change, just as you would with weight training.