The vagus nerve is a lesser known, but crucial, contributor to overall health and wellbeing. In this article, we will discuss functions of this important communication pathway and provide tips on how to activate your vagus nerve to reduce stress levels and optimize your health.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve connects your brain to the rest of the body and is often called the body’s “superhighway.” It is an essential part of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is a group of nerves responsible for relaxing your body after a stressful or dangerous period. This system controls involuntary functions like digestion, heart rate, mood, and your immune response. It is the countermeasure to your sympathetic nervous system which controls your “fight-or-flight” stress response.
What is vagus nerve activation?
Vagus nerve stimulation refers to a medical procedure in which an implantable device is placed in your neck to provide electrical impulses to your brain. True vagus nerve stimulation is approved to treat certain types of epilepsy, depression, and people rehabilitating from a stroke. This type of stimulation is obviously more intrusive and for specific medical uses. However, you can also activate your vagus nerve with certain daily practices to calm your body and improve your response to stressful situations.
Managing your stress can lower cortisol levels and benefit almost any health condition in some way. Specifically, lowering stress levels can benefit conditions like irritable bowel syndrome
, mood disorders
, and autoimmune diseases.
How to activate your vagus nerve
In general, stress inhibits the vagus nerve. Lowering stress through effective management techniques is crucial to support this important nerve connection. Plus, by regularly activating your vagus nerve, you can train your body to relax more quickly and efficiently after a stressful event.
Slow, deep breathing
It’s no coincidence that taking a slow, deep breath during a stressful moment lowers your heart rate and relieves stress-related tension. Deep breathing is effective in calming the body because of its ability to activate the vagus nerve.
Box breathing is a simple technique to implement this practice:
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose while slowly counting to four in your head.
- Gently hold your breath while counting to four again.
- Begin to slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds.
- Hold your breath at the end of the exhale for another four seconds before taking the next inhale.
Repeat this process for three to four rounds or as long as desired.
Meditation and mindfulness
Similarly, meditation is suggested to activate the vagus nerve and consequently improve mental health, overall well-being, and quality of life (1
). Meditation is a state of heightened awareness which connects the body and mind. The most common form of meditation is referred to as mindfulness meditation. All types of meditations take a bit of practice, as we are not usually accustomed to sitting still without noise or distractions. However, even five minutes of meditation or mindfulness may provide benefits to your stress response and vagus nerve.
Remember, the goal of mindfulness, specifically, is not to “turn off your brain” but to pay attention, on purpose, and in the present moment. For ease and convenience, we often recommend mindfulness apps like Headspace or Calm.
Mind-body exercises, like yoga or tai-chi, also activate your vagus nerve by incorporating slow, intentional movements with breathwork. Fortunately, smartphone applications and YouTube make yoga more available and affordable.
Humming and singing produces vibrations that massage the part of your vagus nerve that passes by your vocal cords. Some people may unknowingly hum quietly during stressful moments as this is the body’s way of activating your vagus nerve to relax the body! Try humming to a calming song on your next morning commute.
Vagus nerve and gut health
The vagus nerve serves as the primary communication pathway between your brain and your gut, so it’s important to discuss its role in gut health as well. You need proper vagus nerve function in order for your gut to work properly. For example, the vagus nerve plays a significant role in:
- Controlling your appetite
- Stomach acid production
- Pushing food through the GI tract via the migrating motor complex
- Promoting regular bowel movements
The main role of your vagus nerve is to help the body “rest and digest.” Poor vagus nerve function is associated with gut conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome (2
). Stress further inhibits your vagus nerve function and can worsen digestive symptoms. This is why we always evaluate stress levels in our members, especially ones who report unwanted GI symptoms or have known digestive disorders. We may recommend interventions, like the ones above, to activate your vagus nerve. In some cases, we may also recommend our Motility Support
supplement. Similar to the vagus nerve, ingredients like ginger and artichoke leaf extract support the peristaltic movement of food through the GI tract. Efficient movement of food may reduce constipation and bloating.
Your vagus nerve connects the brain to the rest of your body and helps you relax after a stressful experience. Proper vagus nerve function is crucial for optimal gut health. You can regularly activate your vagus nerve by reducing stress levels with box breathing, meditation, yoga, and humming.