What exactly is the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. The word “vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin, which does also describes how the nerve wanders all over the body, connecting all our major organs together, and contributing a great deal to body sensations, which are one factor we assess when we think about how we’re feeling, either physically or mentally.
The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences our breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on our mental health. When activated, we usually feel calm, safe, and connected (to ourselves and other people). When disactivated our sympathetic (fight-flight) nervous system rules the show in terms of survival responses which can often leave us feeling either over-stimulated (with thoughts, feelings, body sensations: i.e. anxiety) or shut-down in some way which is more often associated with depressive states.
What we need to pay special attention to is the “tone” of our vagus nerve. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing our vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that our body can relax faster after stress or upset. This part of our nervous system is a key factor in mental health and well-being.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone and well-being in terms of mental and physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.
Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, vagal tone is also high.
If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry – you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of stress and upset.
For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA in America has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. But you don’t need to go down that route. You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by doing some of the following.
1. Cold Exposure
Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. Try finishing your next 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. I usually have a cold-water wash (splashing cold water on my face and torso), or a quick cold shower in the morning and then later on have a hot bath followed by a freezing cold shower which seems to do the trick (for me).
2. Deep and Slow Breathing
Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. Especially when done through your nostrils. In fact, even if you were to just switch to breathing through your nose when you’re feeling anxious or low and not alter the pace of your breathing at all, you will already be stimulating your vagus nerve and regulating your too-high (anxious) or too-low (depressed) energy states.
Paced breathing, or deep and slow breathing with a focus on the exhale has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to manage anxiety and trigger the parasympathetic system through the activation of the vagus nerve. Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is what you need to aim for if you’re thinking about getting some stress out of your system. Try also to breathe in deeply from your diaphragm, as anxious, sympathetic nerve states are often associated with shallow (chest) breathing.
When you breath slowly and deeply through your nose, taking the breath all the way down to your stomach, you should notice it expanding outward on the in-breath, and deflating on the out-breath. Make sure the exhale is super-long and extended. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. I prefer to do a more full-body version of this, which I find kicks in more quickly (i.e. after 30 seconds to a few minutes, as opposed to maybe 5-10 minutes, or more, of just doing paced breathing):
3. Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat.
Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. This has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone. Try gargling the first few sips of water before swallowing it. Or when you’re doing the breathing exercises suggested above, make a gentle “Darth Vader” sound in the back of your throat. Or a kind of sigh or hum. Play around with bringing more “voice” into your breathing and see how this affects your nervous system.
If you’re reading something, try reading it aloud for ten minutes. I start my day with a whole series of poems (currently, about a 100) which I chant aloud from memory while I’m washing the dishes and doing some housework. I’ve realised over the years experimenting with different ways to access my “Poetry Liturgy” that apart from the benefit of hearing all the wisdom contained in these poems on a daily basis, every time I recite the liturgy from start to finish, which takes about an hour, I feel calm, and grounded. And I think this is mainly to do with the fact that my recital uses a lot of out-breath -one poem can almost be recited on one long out-breath, as if I were playing a melody on a saxophone. All this adds up to hardcore activation of the vagus nerve with all the benefits attainable for health and well-being with that. I’m not suggesting you follow suit per se (although if you do, happy to be a guide on this journey), but maybe you can create your own singing/whistling/chanting rituals with material that speaks to you.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. A recent (2020) article rounding up the research from the last ten years shows how the gut microbiota affect depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as other psychological and neurological effects. This microbiota can also be tweaked by supplements to boost our regulatory systems. The vagus nerve, again, appears to be key to this.
In one study, animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behaviour. The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood.
Meditation can be used as a relaxation technique, as well as a tool for “feeling” into what “gear” our Autonomic Nervous System is currently set at (this is a form of proprioception called neuroception and is something that gets taught on most meditation courses as “the body scan”).
Meditation, especially when used with a breath-practice done entirely through the nose, emphasising long, slow out-breaths (as in Pranayama or Paced Breathing, see above video) can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
There is now a vast series of studies showing that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, promoting feelings of goodwill (towards oneself and others), emotional grounding, and a more fluid ability to regulate our own Autonomic Nervous System “gearbox” when it gets stuck in anxious or depressed states, often due to “fight or flight” activity from the sympathetic nervous system, and low vagal tone.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish, although I take a non-animal version of this made from flax, and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.
They’ve also been shown to help people overcome addiction, and even reverse cognitive decline. They also increase vagal tone and vagal activity. Studies show that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve. High fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance”.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how crucial exercise is to both our physical and mental well-being. Other than psychotherapeutic strategies, exercise has been my number one ally in navigating depressed and anxious states. Little and often is better than a lot infrequently. This is especially the case with cardiovascular exercise. Play around with what works for you. I find that I only need to do about 15 minutes of cardio (spin bike in the shed) 5-6 times a week, plus a daily walk to keep me on an even keel. When I miss a couple of days, I can feel the effect in terms of tension and dysregulation in my autonomic nervous system.
Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone. The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body.Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Because we are such a social, “touchy-feely” species touch in general is an important part of autonomic regulation. Our primate cousins do most of their day-to-day socialising through touching (physically grooming each other is the equivalent of our small talk). If there isn’t much touch in your life either from friends, or a partner, or your children, you may want to consider inviting a domestic animal into your home. A few minutes of physical interaction with my dog-pal Max is one of the quickest and most powerful ways of settling my nervous system when it goes into a tense, stressed fight-flight mode.
9. Socializing and Laughing
Like touch, this may sound like stating the obvious, but it’s worth noting on this list because it’s an unavoidable truth that socializing and laughing does wonders for the tone of our vagus nerve, and our nervous system as a whole. Researchers have discovered that even reflecting on or visualising positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. The challenge then becomes how to get this social/laughter medicine, especially when we’re feeling low or anxious, which unfortunately is also when we least want to go out and socialise or feel inclined to laugh at the world and ourselves. Again, you will need to be creative here, but comedy specials and other laughter-inducing programs or podcasts come into their own here. We can engage with these somewhat passively which allows us to some extent to get the benefits of the medicine without too much energy output.
10. Medicinal Substances
I believe that psycho-active substances, including medicines, if judiciously and carefully used, can be of great benefit to us. Especially in terms of settling and grounding us for a time in order for us to find our footing again and reconnect to ourselves and the world. I am not just thinking about anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication like SSRIs (Prozac, Sertraline, Citalopram), but all the substances we use as human beings that have psychoactive qualities to them, including: alcohol, cannabis, sugar, coffee, herbal substances like valerian and chamomile, and many more. Let’s talk more about this and the other suggestions mentioned in the article if you are considering using an over-the-counter or non-regulated substance to help you manage your mental health.
We don’t have to be controlled (entirely) by ours mind and nervous system. We do have a certain amount of power to shift gears and send “nudges” to our nervous system in order to guide ourselves into more settled, connected, and safe-feeling states.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress. Even if your mind is telling you that this is not the case, a consciously relaxed/energised/exercised body will eventually bring the mind round to its vibe. But an anxious mind will always (at least in my experience) take a body into depression or anxiety, or some other form of dysregulation.
So it’s really worth thinking about bottom-up regulation (regulating your Autonomic Nervous System through body and breath channels) as much as top-down work with the mind which is what we more often than not focus on in talking-therapy sessions. Ideally, one is doing a combination of the two, creating a mind-body therapy cocktail which you can use and benefit from every day and ultimately thrive.