Ever wondered how your gut feelings manage to alert your brain when things aren’t right? Or how the worries swirling around inside your head can slow your digestion or make your heart race? Messages between your gut and brain are constantly traveling up and down your body’s information superhighway, your vagus nerve.
Learning how to massage your vagus nerve—the longest cranial nerve stretching from your brain stem through your belly and down to your colon—can help calm your parasympathetic nervous system, lower cortisol levels and inflammation, soothe tension headaches and anxiety plus improve your immunity, digestion and mood.
Curiously, the word vagus comes from the Latin word for wander and that is exactly what this wandering nerve does. It branches out and connects your body’s major organs to facilitate the mind-body connection. Vagus nerve fibres found throughout your stomach and intestines, diaphragm, heart, lungs, throat, inner ear and facial muscles form your enteric nervous system or second brain.
Activating your vagus nerve turns off your fight or flight reflex. It tells your brain and heart to calm down. It triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters including oxytocin to promote feelings of relaxation. And it tells your body to rest and digest.
There are many simple ways to activate your vagus nerve every day. Whichever method you use, the aim is to slow your breathing. This stimulates your relaxation response and signals to your parasympathetic nervous system that you are safe.
- Humming or singing to yourself (even quietly) creates vibrations that massage the section of vagus nerve near your vocal chords.
- Chanting OM during yoga also creates vibrations in your throat that are soothing to your nervous system.
- You can slow your breathing down—ideally to about six deep breathes a minute—during meditation and mindfulness practices.
Or choose one of the many other ways to do conscious breathwork, such as taking cold shower, but the overall aim is the same: deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing, allowing the belly to swell when you inhale and sink as you slowly exhale stimulates the vagus nerve.
To get used to belly breathing, sit comfortably or lie on the floor and put one hand on your belly and your other hand on your chest then notice the rise and fall. Observe how your heartbeat rises when you inhale and slows when you exhale. Try to practice throughout the day, especially when you feel stressed so it becomes a habit.
Slowing your breath stimulates the vagus nerve, calms anxiety, slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. Have you noticed when you feel stressed you breathe more rapidly and take short, shallow breaths? This, in turn, speeds up your heart rate and makes you feel even more anxious.
Breathwork also helps strengthen our vagal tone which has overall health benefits. Higher vagal tone has been linked to better physical and psychological wellbeing while a low vagal tone index has been linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness and heart attacks. Athletes have been shown to have better vagal tone and a lower resting heart rate thanks to aerobic breathing.
German physiologist Otto Loewi discovered vagal nerve stimulation triggered the release of a substance he called Vagusstoff in 1921. This substance later became the first neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, to be identified by scientists. To access the tranquilizing effects of acetylcholine, take a few deep breaths followed by long, slow exhalations. Try inhaling for a count of 4 seconds, holding for 7 and exhaling for 8 to relieve mild anxiety. Some practitioners suggest alternate nostril breathing or attempting to exhale through your nose while keeping your mouth closed increases vagal tone by increasing diaphragmatic pressure.
Apart from aerobic exercise, you can improve your vagal tone by humming, singing, laughing and even splashing your face with cold water. Cold shower, anyone?