Why You Need to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Updated: Feb 1
One of the coolest (and most impactful) things I’ve learned over the past few years is about the vagus nerve.
I first heard of the vagus nerve in Nutritional Therapy school. During a conversation at lunch, one of my teachers mentioned how it impacts inflammation and is largely responsible for the mind-body connection -- it plays a key role as a mediator between thinking and feeling.
My teacher knew I had rheumatoid arthritis and encouraged me to investigate the vagus nerve because, from a therapeutic perspective, stimulation of the vagus nerve activates the inflammatory reflex pathway and reduces inflammation.
I was intrigued and curious to learn more.
And I hope you are too!
But first! Important reminder: inflammation is at the root of disease and chronic health conditions. Whether it’s asthma, allergies, bronchitis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, Alzheimer's, and more, it starts with inflammation at the cellular level.
Okay, here’s the lowdown on the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is our biggest and longest nerve; it is a network of nerves connecting and communicating between your brain to your heart, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs.
The vagus nerve governs the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system and it regulates breathing, hearing, vocalization, blood circulation, and the body’s relaxation and healing response.
When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it slows heart rate and breathing rate and increases gut peristalsis, which basically means it helps food move through the digestive system, controlling digestion and satiety.
On the other hand, when you experience stress or anxiety, this inhibits the signals sent through the vagus nerve, activating sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight” activity, speeding up heart rate, slowing digestion, causing gastrointestinal problems, and other physiological changes in the body’s stress response including elevating blood pressure and inflammation.
So, bottom line, if you want to lower inflammation, de-stress, and increase wellbeing, stimulate the vagus nerve!
Stimulating the vagus nerve is associated with an anti-inflammatory response in the brain as it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which calms and relaxes you.
By activating your vagus nerve, you send a message to your body that it’s time to calm down and relax and this lowers cortisol levels and inflammation, soothing tension headaches and anxiety, and boosting your immunity, digestion, and mood.
This state of calm leads to both short and long-term improvements in mood, health, digestion, resilience, and overall wellbeing.
Sounds pretty awesome, right?!
So how do you activate the vagus nerve?
I’m glad you asked!
There are many ways to activate the vagus nerve and access its stress-lowering powers. (Check out my article, Need to de-stress? Try humming)
In addition to humming here are several relaxation techniques that support stepping back from life’s stressors and strengthening your vagus nerve.
Breathing techniques such as alternate-nostril breathing or slow diaphragmatic breathing, exhaling longer than you inhale
A cold bath or washing your face and the back of your neck with cold water
Connect with nature
Support the gut microbiome through eating a wide variety of wholesome organic foods
Exercise and regularly move your body
Have an attitude of gratitude and say thank you often
Mantra chanting, humming (such as a rhythmic “Om”) and singing
Laugh, smile, and giggle, often
Listen to calming instrumental music and/or music with uplifting, happy lyrics
Yoga and meditation
Spend time with people who lift your spirit
Consciously generate positive thoughts and optimism because the positive feedback loop keeps you emotionally and energetically elevated
The more things we do to stimulate or activate the vagus nerve and tap into the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, the more we eliminate the “fight or flight” stress-filled sympathetic nervous system and the better we feel!
One of the best and the most effective ways to activate the vagus nerve is slow, intentional breathing.
My clients tell me how much they appreciate the breathing exercises we do at the beginning of each session. It helps relax, calm, and ground them and creates intentional energy for the work we do together.
Guess what? Intentional breathing is accessible to everyone.
I always say -- You have to breathe anyway!
So let's take a deep breath in together through our nose, and slowly let it out.
Ahhh. I think I'll do that a few more times. Won't you join me?
Love, Your Wellness Coach,
P.S. Curious about my journey with autoimmunity? Check out my podcast Positively Anti-Inflammatory, (Episode 23) "5 lessons I’ve Learned From Living With Rheumatoid Arthritis”
Join me as I share 5 lessons I’ve learned from living with rheumatoid arthritis. I was diagnosed with this chronic, progressive, autoimmune and inflammatory disease over twenty years ago and while my journey with chronic illness and autoimmunity has been rife with denial, judgment, neglect, pain, and anger, it has also immersed me into self-discovery, education, acceptance, healing, gratitude, love, and transformation. As we all have circumstances in life that can benefit from reframing and a positive spin, I hope you find this episode helpful and inspirational.
And if podcasts aren’t your thing, you can read my article 5 lessons I’ve Learned From Living With Rheumatoid Arthritis.
June 9, 2021