Living a life of stress and constant mental stimulation can lead us down a path of symptoms and medical conditions related to high stress. These people are often dealing with fatigue, food sensitivities, anxiety, poor digestion, brain fog and poor sleep quality. Those who suffer with these symptoms often suffer from lower Vagal Tone, meaning that they have a lower ability of the vagus nerve to be activated and perform its functions. So what is the Vagus Nerve?
The Vagus Nerve is the brain’s method of controlling the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and digest system. It is not the only nerve controlling our ability to decrease stressors, but it is by far the single most important nerve due to its far reaching effects. The word “vagus” means wanderer, as this nerve wanders throughout the body to many important organs and imparts signals from the brain regarding their level of function.
This nerve connects the brain to the gut (intestines and stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, sex organs (in females), neck (pharynx, larynx and esophagus), ears and the tongue. No other nerve in the body has such a broad and far reaching effect as the Vagus Nerve.
The function that it imparts is extensive.
- In the brain itself, it helps control anxiety and mood.
- In the gut, it increases stomach acidity, gut flow/motility and other digestive enzyme production.
- Low stomach acid is a major source of gut-related health conditions so an underactive vagus nerve is correlated to the root cause of many health conditions.
- In the heart, it controls heart rate variability, heart rate and blood pressure.
- In the pancreas it controls blood sugar balance and digestive enzymes.
- In the liver it controls bile production and detoxification through hepatic phase 1 and phase 2 conjugation.
- In the gall bladder it controls bile release to help break down fats.
- In the kidneys, it promotes general function including water balance, glucose control and sodium excretion which helps control blood pressure.
- In the bladder it controls voiding of urine.
- In the spleen it helps to reduce inflammation.
- In the sex organs it helps to control fertility and sexual pleasure including orgasms.
- In the mouth and tongue, it helps to control ability to taste and saliva production through salivary gland control.
- In the eyes, it activates tear production through the lacrimal glands.
Vagus nerve stimulation has the potential to help those suffering from various health conditions, including but certainly not limited to anxiety disorders, heart disease, some forms of cancer, poor circulation, leaky gut syndrome, alzheimer’s, memory and mood disorders, migraine’s and headaches, fibromyalgia, obesity, tinnitus, addiction, autism and autoimmune conditions.
So how can we stimulate this nerve to ensure that this nerve is functioning optimally? Here are 19 ways you can exercise and stimulate your vagus nerve:
1. Cold Showers
Any acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve stimulation. Studies have shown that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases, which is mediated by the vagus nerve. Other options are to dip your face in cold water, drink colder fluids and you can even graduate to using a cryohelmet and cold vest. Cold showers are accessible and very effective.
2. Singing or chanting
Singing, humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing and upbeat energetic singing all increase heart rate variability (HRV) in slightly different ways. Singing at the top of your lungs (like you mean it) makes you work the muscles at the back of your throat, which helps activate the vagus nerve. The next time someone catches you singing along to the radio while driving your car, tell them you are just exercising and activating your Vagus nerve.
Gargling with a glass of water each morning will help to contract the muscles in the back of your throat. This in turn helps to activate the Vagus nerve and also stimulates the digestive tract. Keep a glass next to your sink in the washroom as a daily reminder to perform this exercise. You will know you are doing it properly if you gargle to the point of tearing in the eyes (another vagus nerve response). This exercise has been found to be the most readily accessible and easiest to implement in daily life.
Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that improves digestion, blood flow, lung capacity and function. A 12 week yoga intervention showed significantly improved mood and anxiety levels when compared with a control group that performed simple walking exercises. This study showed that levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter associated with mood and anxiety, were increased in those that performed these exercises. Lower mood and higher anxiety is associated with low GABA levels, while an increase in these levels improves mood and decreases anxiety and stress levels. (Reference)
There are two different types of meditation that have been shown to increase vagal tone including Loving-Kindness meditation as well as Guided Mindfulness Meditation. These have been measured by heart rate variability (Reference). It has also been shown that the chanting of “Om” stimulates the vagus nerve.
6. Deep Breathing Exercises
Slow and deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve. The baroreceptors, or pressure receptors in your neck and heart detect blood pressure and transmit the signal to your brain. This signal then in turn activates the vagus nerve, to help lower blood pressure and heart rate. This results in a lower sympathetic “fight or flight” response, as well as a higher parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. Slow breathing helps to increase the sensitivity of these receptors, increasing vagal activation.
Here’s an important tip: Breathe slowly, having your belly rise and fall. This is the intended action of your Diaphragm muscle. Your shoulders and Traps should not be moving much at all with each breath as these actions are controlled by secondary respiratory muscles. The more your belly expands and contracts, the deeper you are breathing.
Laughter is the best medicine. This can actually be true in the case of increased vagus nerve activity as laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability in a study comparing a laughter yoga participants (Reference).
Laughter has also been found to be beneficial for cognitive function and protects against heart disease. It increases beta endorphins, nitric oxide levels and benefits the vascular system. It has also been shown that people put in humorous situations show a lower cortisol stress level overall.
Your gut is connected to your brain, and one of the most clear connections is through the Vagus nerve. Within our gut, we have a population of normal and good bacteria and yeast called the Microbiome. These organisms have a direct effect on our brains as a significant percentage of our neurotransmitters including Serotonin, GABA and Dopamine are produced through actions of these bacteria helping to break down our foods. Often times we have less good bacteria and more bad bacteria within this population leading to poor neurochemistry and decreased vagal tone.
Probiotics are a good option to help promote the good bacteria and other organisms while helping to crowd out the bad bacteria, parasites and yeast.
9. Light Exercise
Mild exercise has been shown to stimulate gut flow and gastric motility (peristalsis) which is mediated by the vagus nerve. This in turn means that mild low level exercise can stimulate the vagus nerve (Reference)
Intermittent fasting helps to increase high frequency heart rate variability in animals, which is a marker of vagal tone. When you fast, part of the decrease in metabolism is mediated by the vagus nerve as it detects a decline in blood glucose levels and a decrease of mechanical and chemical stimuli from the gut (Reference).
Pressure massages can activate the vagus nerve. These massages are used to help infants to gain weight by stimulating gut function, which is largely mediated by activating the vagus nerve. Foot Massages can also increase vagus nerve activity, heart rate variability and lower your heart rate and blood pressure, all of which decrease risk of heart disease.
12. Tai Chi
Tai Chi has been shown to increase heart rate variability in patients suffering from coronary artery disease which again is mediated through vagus nerve activation (Reference).
13. Fish Oil – Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fish Oils – EPA and DHA are capable of increasing heart rate variability as well as lowering heart rate.
14. Tongue depressors
Tongue depressors stimulate the gag reflex. These function in a similar mechanism to gargling or singing loudly as they exercise the reflexes that are mediated by the vagus nerve.
Traditional acupuncture treatment as well as auricular acupuncture (of the ear) stimulate vagus nerve activity. The effects of acupuncture are becoming increasingly well known and you can ask most patients who have had this treatment about the calming effect and restful feelings that they have following an acupuncture treatment. I know many of my patients absolutely love it.
Serotonin, the mood and happiness neurotransmitter, is capable of activating the vagus nerve through various receptors, which are mediated by 5HT1A, 5-HT2, 5-HT3, 5-HT-4 and possibly 5-HT6 receptors. If you have been found to be deficient in serotonin levels, 5-HTP is a good supplement to help increase them.
17. Tensing stomach muscles
Bearing down as if to make a bowel movement requires your body to be in a rest and digest state. This is why many people feel much more relaxed following a bowel movement. Tensing the core muscles by performing abdominal bracing exercises can help to promote a rest and digest state by activating the vagus nerve.
18. Eating in a relaxed state
Don’t eat breakfast in a rush, lunches at your desk, or dinner in front of the computer. Having a meal in a stressful environment when you are running late, working or not focussing on the meal can have long-lasting and damaging effects. It is important to eat in a relaxed state, in a calm and peaceful environment. Remember – Choose good food, Chew your food well, and Chill. Choose, Chew, Chill.
19. Chewing your food well
The simple act of chewing your food, activates the stomach to release acid, tastebuds to taste the foods well, bile production in the liver and release from the gall bladder, digestive enzyme release from the pancreas and gut motility which are all mediated by the vagus nerve. It is important to sequence your digestion correctly and your body will do this automatically IF you start the process correctly. You must take the time to chew your food to the point that it is soft and mushy in your mouth, before your swallow. Doing this will set the correct sequence of digestion in motion and allow the vagus nerve to perform its functions correctly.
Your state of digestion, rest and recovery are all mediated by the vagus nerve. Following these exercises and habits will not only make you feel better, it will allow you to experience the world in a relaxed, calm and enjoyable state. Happy gargling!!