The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex cranial nerve in the body. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wanderer’, which is appropriate given how it meanders from the brain to organs in the neck, chest and abdomen.
What does it do?
The vagus nerve is an important part of the brain-gut axis and is involved in numerous functions including managing inflammation, balancing the intestine, gut function, energy and stress homeostasis. This key nerve also has a major impact on your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response that occurs when the body is relaxed, resting or feeding.
However, the vagus nerve can be impacted by an overactive stress response.
Symptoms associated with an under-performing vagus nerve include:
- Gut issues
- Poor satiety
- An overactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
- Difficulty tuning into mindfulness practices
8 ways to activate and reset the vagus nerve
Learning how to activate and reset this nerve can help to:
- Calm your body
- Manage stress and improve your stress respon
- Improve gut function.
The good news is that there are numerous natural techniques to reset your vagal tone. Explore the following but remember, speak to your healthcare practitioner first to discuss if these methods offer you the right support.
Deep belly breaths
Make this a daily habit: engage in slow, rhythmic breathing from your diaphragm, rather than breathing shallowly from the top of the lungs. This is a common breathing technique used by yogis in meditation and relaxation practice to stimulate and tone the vagus nerve, among numerous other wellness benefits.
Singing, humming, chanting or laughing
While this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the logic is sound. Given that the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, these actions will mechanically stimulate it. Hum a song, or repeat the yoga sound ‘OM’ and even have a good laugh. Talking is also good!
Meditate focusing on elevated emotions
Studies show that meditation stimulates vagal tone and increases positive emotions, including feelings of compassion towards yourself and others. Social connection is important as it promotes feelings of joy and serenity. It’s all about surrounding yourself with ‘positive energy’ people.
Research shows cold exposure helps your parasympathetic nervous system kickstart the “rest and digest” response – which is controlled by the vagus nerve.
Tryptophan and gut-loving nutrition
Foods that include the amino acid, tryptophan, are known to help improve the communication from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve. Spinach, eggs, salmon, seeds and nuts are all good sources. Also, fill your plate with 60% greens and vegetables and keep your protein intake low (20%). Red meat and eggs contain choline which is good for you, but in excess, it can stimulate inflammation and heart disease. Avoid all sugar as it promotes inflammation and look to probiotics found in fermented foods. Good gut bacteria can activate the vagus nerve.
Some studies show that time-restricted fasting can activate the vagus nerve and that the fasting window does not need to be that long either.
Research shows that receiving massage in the neck and/or feet area, as well as pressure massages or acupuncture treatment, can lead to increased vagal activity and vagal tone.
Sleep on your right-hand side
It is believed that sleeping on your right side increases heart variability and activates vagus expression as opposed to lying on your back which lowers vagus activity.
So there you have it… these are just a few super-simple strategies for taking care of the vagus nerve, a nerve that plays such a vital role in both your physical and mental health.