What Is The Vagus Nerve & Why Is It Fundamental For Health?

April 15, 2023

Did you know that you have a superpower within you that can help reduce stress, anxiety, and even speed up healing? This superpower is the largest autonomic nerve in the body, ladies and gentlemen, meet… the vagus nerve. 

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve (VN) is connected to almost every organ system in the human body. From our brainstem to our abdomen, touching and communicating with many vital organs along the way. It plays a crucial role in regulating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” state of our body. I’m sure you are well aware of the toll stress and tension takes on our health, in fact, we cannot properly digest food if we are out of our rest and digest mode (hence rest and digest). Read on to discover what the VN does and how to uncover its many positive effects.  

What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?

Reduces Stress and Anxiety

Living in this fast-paced, go-getter world, we can often find ourselves juggling multiple roles and responsibilities. This can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, then to add on top of that, excess stimulation from computer screens/smartphone screens to overconsumption of caffeine and alcohol. We are highly stimulated and on overdrive.

The good news? The VN can help. Through its connection with the heart, lungs, and digestive system, the VN can regulate our breathing, heart rate, and digestion, all of which are affected by stress (I’ll get to more on how to stimulate the VN and strengthen its impact on regulating our body in a minute, I promise). 

Boosts Digestion and Reduces Inflammation

As mentioned above, the vagus nerve plays a vital role in our digestive health. By improving the motility of our intestines, it ensures that food is digested properly, and nutrients are absorbed efficiently. Digestion is the heart of our health and gut health is very important. In addition, the VN can reduce inflammation in our body, which is known to be the root cause of many diseases, including autoimmune disorders. 

Improves Mental Health

Did you know that the vagus nerve connects the gut and brain to each other? That’s right, this nerve is responsible for what is commonly known as the gut-brain axis. This connection plays a primary role in influencing our emotional and mental well-being. Research has even shown that stimulating the VN can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD!  

Enhances Physical Performance

If you’ve found this blog, most likely you are interested in looking after your health through exercise. You will be happy to read that the VN can also enhance your physical performance. By regulating our heart rate and breathing, it helps us train harder and recover faster. In fact, elite athletes such as Olympic swimmers have used vagus nerve stimulation to improve their performance and endurance.

Speeds Up Healing

Another benefit of the VN is its ability to speed up the healing process. By improving blood flow and reducing inflammation, it can help our body recover from injuries and illnesses faster. For example, medical researchers are exploring the use of vagus nerve stimulation to treat chronic pain and migraines.

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Now that we’ve learned a little bit about what the VN does, it is time to unveil some simple tools to strengthen this incredible nerve. The more we can do to get our body working with us and not against us, the better. Let’s get into all the crunchy details! 

Practice Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is known for its many benefits, but did you know that it’s also a great way to support your vagus nerve? When you take deep breaths, especially from the belly, your diaphragm moves, stimulating the VN. This process calms your nerves as it encourages your body to relax and reduce stress.

To start, take a deep breath through your nose and hold it for a few seconds. Then, slowly release through your mouth. One of my favorite basic breath-work exercises consists of inhaling for a count of four, then holding for a count of four, and releasing for a count of eight. I will repeat this several times until I feel calm.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Another simple way to support your VN is by maintaining a balanced diet. This means avoiding processed foods, sugary drinks, and highly refined carbohydrates. Instead, focus on consuming whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. These foods are not only good for your overall health but can also help regulate inflammation, which can place stress on the VN.

Engage in Regular Exercise

Physical activity is not only beneficial for your physical health but can also help activate your vagus nerve. Exercise, even moderate forms such as walking or yoga, can stimulate the VN and promote relaxation. This is why you may feel a sense of calm after completing a workout. It’s important to note that over-exercising may cause stress on your body, so be sure to find a balance that works best for you.

Singing and Humming

Singing and humming activate the vagus nerve through its connection to our vocal cords and the muscles in our throat. Singing and humming more often will help strengthen the VN, allowing it to function more optimally. I like to find at least one time per day to sing. I feel so incredibly calm and relaxed during and after. I may not sound like Beyonce (at least that’s what people keep telling me but who actually knows) however, the benefits I feel from expressing myself in this way have been undeniable. 

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is crucial for overall health and wellness, but it can also benefit your VN function. During sleep, your body has the chance to heal and restore itself, which can help normalize hormone levels, reduce inflammation, and provide a sense of relaxation. Be sure to aim for 7-10 hours of quality sleep each night, and consider implementing a bedtime routine to help your body relax and prepare for sleep. Limiting blue screens, and adding in a self-care routine (bath, hot shower, self-massage, gentle yoga, etc) at night has been a game changer for me! 

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help activate your VN, resulting in a greater sense of calm and relaxation. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation can help to regulate the nervous system, resulting in positive implications for both physical and mental health. Consider joining a meditation group or watching guided meditation videos online to get started.

Gagging and Gargling

This one may seem a bit odd, but activating your gag reflex is another sure way to improve the gut-brain connection (via the VN of course) improving digestion, mood, and overall health. Next time you brush your tongue, gently try activating the gag reflex. Gargling is another great way to activate our VN, try it next time you are brushing your teeth or using mouthwash.

The Vagus Nerve and Health

There you have it, folks. The vagus nerve is not something to be overlooked. By activating this superpower within us, we can reduce stress, improve digestion, enhance our mental/physical performance, and speed up healing. Remember that taking care of your vagus nerve doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming, in fact all of the tools mentioned above can be done in the comfort of your own home. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath, go exercise, or put on Taylor Swift’s latest album and sing your heart out! 


Alma Ervedosa is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), specializing in nutrition counseling. Alma believes in a functional, whole person approach to nutrition counseling. See Alma’s full bio to learn more.


Resources

https://sass.uottawa.ca/sites/sass.uottawa.ca/files/how_to_stimulate_your_vagus_nerve_for_better_mental_health_1.pdf

https://www.verywellhealth.com/vagus-nerve-anatomy-1746123

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