The Vagus nerve has gotten a lot of press over the last several years. Medical researchers have discovered that stimulating this nerve has the potential to lower blood pressure, reduce pain, improve immunity and more. Neurologists, yogis and mental health professionals are also discovering the unique role this nerve may have in our ability to communicate, regulate our nervous systems and feel safe in the world.
Can one nerve do all that?
Your nervous system
Your vagus nerve is the main messenger for your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Your PNS is the rest-and-digest system. It regulates your heart rate, breath rate and enables you to digest and eliminate your food. In emergency situations, it slows down your organs to conserve energy and keep you alive.
Your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is your fight-or-flight system. When under threat, you activate this system to run, defend yourself, and survive. When not under threat, you use this system to play, exercise or to move.
You need both systems to function together and effectively to maintain homeostasis and stay healthy.
Your vagus nerve
You have a vagus nerve on either side of your body, so there are actually two. They originate in your brainstem with connections to the face, neck, chest, heart, diaphragm and abdominal cavity. Vagus means “wanderer” in Latin, which is fitting because of its expansive connections throughout the body.
It’s a mixed nerve, which means it has bidirectional control to and from the brain. Eighty percent of this nerve is afferent, so it’s mostly concerned about conveying what’s going on in your environment, your body, and your gut to your brain for interpretation.
Your vagus nerve has an anterior and posterior portion. The anterior (ventral) portion is involved in what researcher Stephen Porges calls the “social engagement system.” It connects your heart and lungs to your facial muscles and is unique to mammals. This portion of the nerve is myelinated, so impulses move quickly, influencing facial expression and theoretically influencing your sense of connection, safety, and love.
Visualize this nerve and its branches which meander from your face to your heart, lungs, and stomach. With this image in your head, you may sense how excising it would abolish all sense of humanity. Just think what life would be like if you, or your dog, had no facial expressions. How awful would that feel!?
The posterior (dorsal) portion of the nerve is un-myelinated and works at a much slower pace. It controls functions like digestion and elimination that stop if your life depends on it. This portion exists in all living creatures, such as fish and lizards.
Increased vagal tone means that you can recover faster from stressful situations.
When your vagus nerve(s) works well (i.e. increased tone), your parasympathetic nervous system does its job. This means your body can recover from life’s stressors and more readily engage in the world instead of living in a survival state — hyper-reactive, hyper-vigilant, and constantly looking out for people and things that may hurt you. You may feel excited, anxious or scared, but quickly bounce back to a neutral state as emotions pass. Many of us feel consistent stress because our nervous systems stay revved up regardless of circumstance.
Increased vagal tone is associated with higher heart rate variability (heart resilience), positive emotions, and better health.
If all this sounds complicated, it is. Your vagus nerve senses what is going on within your body and environment and communicates this information to your brain. When you feel stressed, your vagus nerve can shift you from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state smoothly so you have better control over your responses, your physiology, and your mood.
When you are constantly revved up on sympathetic overdrive, your body becomes tense and you may feel anxious or on edge much of the time. If you have good vagal tone, you have a nervous system that fluctuates as it should. You’ll have highs and lows but will be able to ride these moments out more effectively. This may make you a more easy-going person literally and figuratively.
Ways to hack your vagus nerve
Much of the magic in healing physical and mental trauma and recovering from stressful events lies in nervous system regulation, specifically mitigating sympathetic overload through the vagus nerve. If you are struggling with a health condition, your nervous system will be affected, but you can still improve your body’s ability to cope.
Below are five ways you may use the vagus nerve to improve your nervous systems resilience and improve mental and physical health.
- Breathe slow and deep. Slowing the breath down, especially on the exhale, is a great way to reduce stress and induce a relaxed state for most people. By directing your breath to move deeper in your lungs with each breath, you effectively use your diaphragm. The diaphragm, when contracted, physically and tonically stimulates the vagus nerve, reducing sympathetic dominance. “Normal” breath rate is 12–14 breaths a minute. Research shows that half of that is better for optimal health and resilience. So slow and low is the way to go!
- Get moving. There are many studies that support the physical and mental health benefits of exercise. Besides being an effective, healthy way to manage stress, aerobic exercise improves heart rate variability, a biomarker of parasympathetic activity and vagal tone.
- Laugh and hang out with good people. Laughter, (smiling) and social connection help to improve vagal tone. It may feel difficult to laugh if you are under stress, but it’s important to find some pleasure in life. Hang out with friends and connect to people in your life that make you feel good. When you do more things that bring joy to your life, you will experience less stress, which makes it easier to laugh.
- Meditate. Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions (among a host of other benefits). One reason it works is by reducing stress. Even the preparation for meditation includes all the things you should do to balance the go-go-go nature of life: slow down, release physical and mental tension, and focus attention. Meditation isn’t easy, especially if you are accustomed to constant stress. If you want guidance, I recommend exploring some of the fantastic apps now available, such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer, to get started.
- Sing, hum or repeat a mantra. Vibration is a great way to divert thought and focus the mind. Have you ever put your fingers in your ears as a defiant child while muttering “blahhhhhhh!”? The noise you make will cause a vibration in your head. There is an adult version of this called Bee’s breath (a form of pranayama or breathing) and I shared a video on Vimeo if you want to check it out. Its my go-to when I can’t think straight, and now I know how it works — vagal tone!
In summary, your vagus nerve is pretty special and deserves the press it’s getting. Why not use its powers to reset your nervous system?
Let me know how it goes.
- Psychophysiology | Contribution of tonic vagal modulation of heart rate, central respiratory drive, respiratory depth, and respiratory frequency to respiratory sinus arrhythmia during mental stress and physical exercise by Jan H Houtveen, Simon Rietveld, and Eco J C de Geus
- Biological Psychology | Cardiac vagal control, emotion, psychopathology, and health by Andrea S Chambers, and John J B Allen
- Biological Psychology | The Polyvagal Perspective by Stephen W Porges
- Psychological Science | How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone by Bethany E Kok, Kimberly A Coffey, Michael A Cohn, Lahnna I Catalino, Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, Sara B Algoe, Mary Brantley, and Barbara L Fredrickson
- Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine |Vagus Nerve Stimulation and the Cardiovascular System by Michael J. Capilupi, Samantha M. Kerath, and Lance B. Becker