How to Tone the Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body.
It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs.
In fact, the word "vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs.
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.
But what you really need to pay special attention to is the "tone" of your vagus nerve.
Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone has been shown to help treat a wide variety of brain and mental health conditions.
You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these 13 steps.
Essential oils can calm the autonomic nervous system by engaging the vagus nerve. Calming essential oils include Lavender, Chamomile, Sandalwood, Cedarwood, Geranium, Neroli, Lemongrass, and Ylang Ylang. Inhaling essential oils has the most immediate and profound effect.
2. Deep and Slow Breathing
Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve.
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. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
3. Singing, Humming and Chanting
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone.
Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve.
You can also use an acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed.
5. Yoga and Tai Chi
Yoga and tai chi are two “mind-body” relaxation techniques that work by stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by stimulating the vagus nerve/
6. Cold Exposure
Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve.
Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve .
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.
It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.
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.
Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. 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 and increases vagal modulation.
“OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve .
9. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and algae ( a great vegan option) and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.
Zinc is an essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with anxiety. Some of the best food sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms and spinach. However, it is still recommend at least short-term supplementation to ensure you get enough.
Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone. The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Massaging either side of the neck, between the earlobe and the shoulder.
Foot massages and reflexology have been shown to help by decreasing the “fight or flight” sympathetic response .
Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another. You don’t have to be controlled by your body and mind.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to you body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.