“By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.”
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist
What 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, heart and lungs. The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
Here are 9 evidenced-based ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and experience de-stress and relaxation:
1. Cold Exposure
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.
2. Deep and Slow Breathing
Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow.
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.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. Try adding a probiotic to your diet.
Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.
Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. Move to something you enjoy!
Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your
throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve.
9. Socializing and Laughing
Socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone.
Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood. And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another. Safely (post Covid) hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible!
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience!