How to Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve to Upgrade Your Whole Body
By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
November 29, 2017
- The vagus nerve is a two-way network of communication between the brain and most major organs in your body. It regulates things like hunger, the immune response, feeling calm or anxious, and more.
- A properly functioning vagus nerve will improve brain-body communication, and in turn make your whole body work better.
- You can tone your vagal pathways with breathing exercises, cold blasts, maintaining a strong gut, and other easy practices. If you need extra help, you and your doctor can opt for a surgically-implanted vagus nerve stimulator.
The vagal pathway is a system of nerves that connects outward from the brain and regulates many organs in the body – the heart, lungs, gut, liver and more.
Modern medicine treats individual organs as the area of disease, and ignores the fact that your brain and nervous system tell your organs what to do. Your organs regularly send a status check to your brain through the vagus nerve to report on how things are going.
It’s a two-way street. When everything’s going well, your brain maintains status quo. When an organ is struggling, it can signal to your brain for more resources. When it’s time for your body to spring to action, your vagus nerve carries the signal from your brain to your organs to slow down.
To make sure nothing is lost in translation, your vagus nerve needs to be in working order. Your brain and organs depend on your vagal pathways to regulate things like:
- Hunger hormones and food intake
- Anxiety and fight-or-flight
- The immune response
Because the vagus nerves are involved in so much, it’s vital that it’s functioning properly. Read on to find out how you can support your vagus nerve via vagal toning.
It’s cliche, but take deep breaths
Yoga breathing and guided breathing exercises calm your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. Breathing exercises increased vagal tone and effectively managed prehypertension in an experimental group.
In one study, slow breathing exercises improved autonomic functions in healthy participants. Fast breathing didn’t. That’s because fast breathing makes your body think you’re running from predators. That sets off your body’s alarm bells and activates a stress response.
Box breathing for S.O.S.
If you’re panicking or about to blow a gasket, try box breathing.
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Hold for a count of four.
- Exhale for a count of four.
- Wait for a count of four.
- Repeat until your hands are back on the controls.
The first couple of times, trace your finger in a square pattern in the air. It’ll help you remember how to do it when you’re frazzled.
The slow expansion of your lungs signals to your heart to slow down, which sends a feeling of calm throughout your entire nervous system. Your vagus nerve connects all of this signaling and releases acetylcholine, a calming chemical you can give yourself a shot of any time by doing relaxation techniques.
Chill out, literally
Getting used to the cold tones the vagus response, which slows the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Regular cold blasts measurably reduce stress markers. Cold exposure helped relieve signs of depression and anxiety, possibly modulated by the vagus nerve.
Stimulating the vagal pathways stimulates digestion. When rats’ digestion slowed down due to anxiety, cold exposure re-activated the gastric nerves and got everything going again. It all happened through vagal pathways.
Keep your gut happy
Ever heard of the gut-brain axis? That refers to the microorganisms in your digestive system communicating with your brain.
Your microbiome is the ecosystem of friendly bacteria in your body and on your skin. Most often, when someone talks about the microbiome, they’re talking about the microbes in your intestines and colon.
As the science of the microbiome builds, the scientific community explores more and more ways the microbiome affects your entire body. Research on the connection between the microbiome and mood is expanding, and communication between gut and brain hinges on — surprise — the vagus nerve.
Studies on animal models and humans support the idea that a thriving microbiome curbs anxiety and improves your mood. Some of the research examined this effect with and without an intact vagus nerve, to see if vagal pathways have anything to do with it.
Researchers see beneficial effects of probiotics on mood in humans. Healthy women who ate fermented foods for four weeks showed positive changes in brain activity, particularly in the parts of the brain that control emotion and sensation. From the animal studies, and from what scientists know about the vagus nerve already, you can make a solid guess that the gut-brain communication here happens through the vagus nerve.
The best way to support your intestinal flora is to get a comprehensive microbiome test like Viome. Viome is a test-at-home kit that you use to easily profile your microbiome, and then you get personalized dietary recommendations to bring you back into balance.
Find your safety cues
Vagus nerve expert Dr. Stephen Porges established Polyvagal Theory (more on that on an episode of Bulletproof Radio), which lays out a decision process of sorts that determines whether fight-or-flight activates. You are not conscious of this process — it all happens in the background, and different branches of the vagus nerve activate in response to different situations.
When you experience a frightening stimulus, the first layer to get through is the one that responds to social communication — verbal language, body language, vocal tone, and other nonverbal cues. If the stimulus is too strong to reason through, your brain activates the fight-or-flight response. When that fails, the most primitive fear response is playing possum — feeling frozen.
When you know your fear is irrational, you can use safety cues to stop panic at the first layer, and keep your brain from getting to the fight-or-flight response. Here are some things you can try.
Use soothing voices
In his interview on Bulletproof Radio, Stephen Porges explains one way this phenomenon is hardwired in kids. Children are measurably calmed by prosodic (sing-songy) speaking, also known as “motherese.” Waldorf schools train teachers to adopt this tone to maintain a calm and happy classroom. If you’ve visited your neighborhood playground in the middle of the morning, you’ve seen it in action.
Altering your tone of speech works for adults, too. Guided meditations, either in person or recorded, adopt a slow, rhythmic tone of speaking. Using the voice as a relaxation cue coaxes your brain into a relaxed state faster than a normal conversational tone would.
Train your own safety cues
With a little practice, you can train your mind to feel safe. Safety cues keep your fear and anxiety responses from kicking in.
One way to do this is to create your “safe place” or “happy place” while you’re calm. To do this, you imagine you’re at a place where you’re completely at ease and feeling content and peaceful. Use as much sensory information as you can – imagine the sights, smells, sounds, etc.
Practice this visualization often. That way, when you start feeling fearful or angry, you can initiate the “safe place” without much effort. It’s there when you need it.
Take care of your myelin
Your vagus nerve is myelinated, which means it’s covered in a protective covering of fat that insulates it and helps the signals travel through efficiently. When myelin on any nerve breaks down, the nerve doesn’t work as well. Read this post to learn more about how to love on your myelin.
Surgically-implanted electrical vagus nerve stimulator
The vagus nerve activates the immune system when you’re fighting something. Doctors use this knowledge for therapy by stimulating the vagus nerve with electricity and pharmaceuticals to treat inflammatory disorders. Doctors surgically implant electric vagus nerve stimulators in patients with severe epilepsy or depression because it dampens the inflammation response.
You can tone your baby’s vagus nerve
Several factors play into baby’s vagal tone. Babies who are born premature, or born to mothers who had depression and anxiety during pregnancy have low vagal tone.
If you were going through some things during pregnancy, don’t worry. You can help tone your baby’s vagal pathways with normal bonding behaviors and loving care.
Cold showers should probably wait until junior is old enough to agree to it. During the baby years, infant massage and kangaroo care (holding baby skin-to-skin) help babies’ vagal tone develop. If your kids are past the baby stage, you can work with them on some of the grown-up ways to tone the vagus nerve, like breathing techniques and cold blasts in the shower.
A massage, a yoga class, and a few minutes of goosebumps in the shower are probably worth it considering that the benefits of vagal nerve toning extend to every major organ in your body and back. For more ways to support your whole system, head-to-toe, pop your info into the box below so you don’t miss a thing.
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