For most people, the last 19 months have been a roller coaster ride and it’s not over just yet. If nothing else, this difficult time has shown us just how fragile physical and mental health can be, and how important it is to protect and preserve them both. One silver lining: most of us are more aware of what sends our stress levels into the stratosphere, with the tricky part being how to bring them back down to earth. The good news is that inside every one of us in an actual nerve whose job it is to do exactly that — the vagus nerve (VN). To tap into its calming powers on-demand, I recommend practicing ‘vagus nerve stimulation’ (VNS). Here’s a topline on this powerful tool, and how to use it to help your body and mind thrive through stressful times:
Introducing the vagus nerve.
Before we get into VNS, let’s meet your vagus nerve, which actually consists of two nerves that ‘wander’ through the body. (The literal translation of “vagus” is “wanderer.”) The VN starts in the brain stem, emerging through the skull and heads south, passing down though the carotid sheath, and branching out across the torso, influencing the function of different organs throughout the body.
The VN is an essential part of your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calming and balancing your nervous system, as well as regulating critical body functions, among them, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, perspiration and even speaking. It also calms down your organs, including your digestive tract, after your system has been ratcheted up by the sympathetic nervous system in response to a perceived threat, the so-called “fight-or-flight” response.
The vagus nerve controls much of your internal show.
If you’re wondering what exactly the VN (and all its branches) are up to, the answer is quite a bit. The VN communicates and sends signals back and forth between the brain and the internal organs, including heart, lungs, kidneys, spleen, intestines, and liver, to name a few. You could think of the brain as the boss, and the VN as the superstar assistant working to issue orders, communicate with the staff and keep the trains running on time.
The VN also plays an essential role managing what goes on in the muscles and the nerves that control them, for instance, those involved in speaking, swallowing, eye movements and facial expressions. What’s more, the VN helps manage heart rhythm as well as the involuntary muscles, helping to stimulate peristalsis, the muscle contractions in your digestive tract which moves food through it. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s tied in to your immune system as well. The VN is so intimately involved in so much of your basic day-to-day bodily functions, life without it would be virtually impossible.
Your gut and brain communicate with help from the VN.
When all is going well and mind and body aren’t stressed, the VN sends out the ‘rest-and-digest’ messages, via the parasympathetic nervous system. It lets the brain know it’s OK to slow heart and breathing rates, while digestion can move along at a faster clip. All good. However, when stress kicks in, the VN becomes more inhibited, and the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system cranks up. Digestion slows, heart and breathing rates speed up – and you get that slightly panicky feeling most of us are all too familiar with.
What other bad things happen when stress kicks in? Dysbiosis in your gut, in other words, the disruption of your microbial balance, which can play a large role in triggering or exacerbating digestive disorders and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Soothe yourself by stimulating the vagus nerve.
Knowing that the vagus nerve is so plugged into soothing your stress response, the question becomes, how to tap into it whenever stress, depression or anxiety levels start to rise? The answer: vagal nerve stimulation (VNS.) Though surgical VNS options exist for more severe or chronic conditions, a non-invasive approach fits the bill for most of us and the way to go to keep vagal ‘tone’ in good condition.
One way to get a handle on that tone is to track your heart rate variability (HRV), with a fitness tracker. (Heart and breathing rates are good indicators too.) If your HRV is on the higher side, that’s an indication that your vagal ‘tone’ likely in a positive place as well. If your tone is on the lower side, the good news is that you can train yourself to flip the metaphorical VN switch and nudge your tone up. How to do that? Try any number of the following mind/body practices (the more the merrier) – which also happen to be known for their calming, balancing effects – to stimulate the vagus nerve and let the good feelings flow:
1. Get ‘tapping.’
Also known as ‘tapping,’ the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is an acupressure-based set of moves you can do almost anywhere. You stimulate the vagus nerve by tapping on specific meridian points, helping to bust stress and relieve anxiety. To learn how, check out one of the many YouTube videos, or try this tutorial:
or this one:
2. Tune into meditation.
While I urge everyone to get into a daily practice to cultivate positive emotions, reduce stress and encourage relaxation, if you need a dose of serenity right now, a quick guided meditation will take the edge off and stimulate the vagus nerve. Just grab a chair, close your eyes and take a 3-minute time-out. YouTube is a good place to sample both the longer guided meditations as well as the quickies – here are a few to start with:
3. Expose yourself to the cold.
Brief doses of cold temperatures have been shown to increase vagus nerve activity and curb the fight-or-flight response. Try stepping outside, minimally dressed, for a few minutes in winter or finish your morning shower with an ice-cold blast, eventually working your way up to all-cold showers. It’s a great anti-aging strategy as well. Or you can start small by dousing your face in ice cold water or placing a Ziplock bag full of ice cubes on your face for a few minutes, helping to stimulate relaxation and blood flow to the brain
4. Go deep into slow belly breathing.
Another excellent technique for taming anxiety and activating the vagus nerve is deep, slow breathing. Here’s a simple Abdominal Breathing exercise you can do anywhere – at your work-from-home desk, in your car or on the train to the office or wherever you may find yourself getting stressed. Here’s how:
- Get into a relaxed position, sitting upright in a chair, or if space permits, lying down.
- Put your hands on your abdomen.
- Close your mouth gently and touch your tongue to your upper palate and breath through your nose. If your nose is blocked for any reason, it’s fine to breathe through your mouth.
- Inhale deeply and very slowly, being aware of your diaphragm moving downward and your abdomen expanding. Your hands on your abdomen will feel the expansion, like a balloon filling.
- At the end of the inhalation, don’t hold the breath – let your abdomen fall automatically as you exhale.
- Try to get all the breath out of your lungs on the expiration. The expiration should normally be about twice as long as the inhalation when you are relaxed.
- Keep repeating this, keeping your focus on your hands rising on the abdomen on the inhale and falling on the exhale.
5. Make a joyful noise.
Believe it or not, your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and throat muscles, so when you sing, you’re stimulating your vagus nerve as well as making a joyful noise. Not a singer? Then try humming, gargling or chanting, all of which will have a similar, positive effect on vagal tone.
6. Make your exercise your vagus nerve stimulating medicine.
Simply put, exercise makes you healthier, and also helps stimulate your vagus nerve – so there’s a lot to like about moving more and often. When you’re healthier, you’re more resilient, you heal quicker, you can handle stress better, keeping your blood pressure out of the danger zone. While virtually all forms of exercise confer benefits (that is, as long as you don’t overdo it), when it comes to vagus nerve stimulation, the slow and flowing movements and slow deep breathing involved in practices like yoga and tai chi are great ways to activate the benefits of the parasympathetic nervous system.
7. Doctor’s orders – hit the massage table, or chair.
Who doesn’t love a massage? Be it full-body, back and shoulders only, or foot massage, it all helps stimulate the vagus nerve and boost vagal tone. Meanwhile, you get to enjoy the pleasant, in-the-moment soothing and relaxing sensations.
8. Hang out with people you enjoy.
Though it’s not been easy to connect with others as often as we may have liked to recently, spending time with your tribe – perhaps outdoors is best for now – is good for overall stress relief. But take it a step further with some hearty belly laughs or getting a case of the giggles and you will also help stimulate the vagus nerve – so don’t hold back!
9. Ingest some vagus nerve stimulators.
A few more super simple ways to tone up and tune up the vagal action? Through your mouth – with a daily high-quality probiotic, a few weekly servings of omega 3 fatty acids, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts.