Looking for Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve to Reduce Stress?
Importance of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, connecting the brain to the neck, heart, lungs, spleen and the digestive system. It has many functions within those body systems with vital involvement in sensory and movement functions and a major role in balancing the nervous system, which is the focal point of this article.
Balancing the Nervous System
Try to think of the Vagus nerve as an on/off switch between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, your stress response fight or flight and your rest and digest response. On the sympathetic side, turning the switch ON when experiencing a stressful event, the vagus nerve is involved in increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, energy levels, allows you to be more alert and focused, accelerates breathing, and redirects blood flow from the digestive system to the brain and muscles. We can become faster, stronger, react quicker to a “dangerous” situation. Energy is not “wasted” on digestive functions! On the parasympathetic side, turning the switch OFF to get back into the rest and digest phase, it lowers blood pressure, heart rate, slows breathing, instills a sense of calmness and relaxation to body and mind.
Remember that in a stressful situation blood flow to the digestive system is going to be decreased, slowing down digestive functions? That is an important factor when considering that many of us stay in a state of “stress response” for prolonged periods of time. The Vagus nerve is in constant communication between the gut and the brain, and is also involved in sending anti-inflammatory information to the body. Hence, unmanaged stress can add to digestive and inflammatory issues.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
When the Vagus nerve gets stimulated it releases a substance called “Vagusstoff”, also named acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in our capacity to calm down, to switch from our stress response back into our rest and digest response. The vagus nerve communicates the state of our organs back to the brain. The higher our vagal tone, the better our emotional and physical wellbeing, the better our ability to stay in control during stressful situations and exercising adequate response. Low vagal tone makes it difficult to “switch back” into a calm and relaxed state and may be associated with chronic inflammation, negative moods and emotions, feeling isolated, increased heart rate and blood pressure, digestive issues – just to name a few.
How Do I know I have low vagal tone?
A useful indicator (also called hearth coherence) is the difference in heart rate between inhaling (when the blood gets oxygenated) and exhaling. The greater the difference in heart rate, the higher the vagal tone.
Practices Commonly Used to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve may include:
Deep Breathing Practices
Deep and slow diaphragmatic breathing, raising the belly when breathing in, holding the breath for few counts, exhaling by releasing all air out of the lungs until it feels the belly is sinking against the spine (exhaling for longer counts than breathing in) is a helpful practice to stimulate the vagus nerve. The more we practice deep breathing every single day, the easier it will be to use this technique during a stressful event, to help our nervous system back into a calmer state.
When chanting Om, a vibration sound is felt in the vocal cords which may stimulate the vagus nerve which runs down at the back of the throat. Chanting Om has been indicated as having positive cardiovascular benefits, reducing feelings of stress and helping the body enter a relaxed state of mind, lowering blood pressure, slowing heart rate, instilling a sense of inner calm, opening the Crown Chakra and self-realization. If chanting is new to you, you may want to start practicing with guidance. Several good videos can be found on YouTube.
Singing & Laughing
Singing in the shower or car, playing Karaoke, watching a funny movie or comedy show, talking with friends who are sure to make you laugh are a fun and great way to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Splashing cold water into your face, running it over the inside of the wrists, turning the shower on cold for the last 30 seconds are great ways to boost vagal tone (and support the immune system).
Probiotics & Balanced Nutrition
Supporting gut health can greatly impact our overall health (digestive health, immune system, emotional balance). The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” because it produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine which play an important role in regulating mood. It is estimated that the digestive tract creates 90% of our serotonin levels. What affects our gut also affects the brain and vice versa. Fortifying the body with balanced nutrition and probiotics may support vagal tone.
Essential oils can calm the autonomic nervous system by engaging the vagus nerve. Calming essential oils include Lavender, Roman Chamomile, Melissa, Sandalwood, Cedarwood, Vetiver, Patchouli, Rose, Neroli, Lemon, and Ylang Ylang to name some of the most commonly used. Inhaling essential oils (from the palms of the hands or diffused) has the most immediate and profound effect.
Movements requiring a complex level of coordination (Fast Walking, Jogging, Yoga, Thai Chi and other Eastern movement practices) help stimulate the vagal tone, synchronizing internal and external rhythms with thoughts and emotions.
Training the Taste Buds
The vagus nerve is involved in our sense of taste. Consciously tasting foods and beverages, reflecting on what we like or dislike, differentiating nuances of sweet, savory or spicy and learning to discern whether we are sensing true hunger or just craving something because of stress or need for emotional gratification, helps train the vagus nerve.
Regular practice and consistency makes all the difference!
Incorporating some of these techniques, may strengthen vagal tone which can positively impact our ability to manage stress, balance mood, support digestion, and overall well being.