Have you ever wondered why taking slow, deep breaths when you’re in a stressful situation works to calm you? The answer lies in the body’s longest nerve, the vagus nerve. With its natural tranquilizing powers, the vagus nerve not only provides an internal check on stress, but through a few simple exercises, can become a powerful tool in the fight against chronic inflammation and disease.
The vagus nerve is the primary nerve of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for the body’s rest-and-digest functions. It begins in the cerebellum and extends down the brainstem through the chest and abdomen, branching off to most of our major organs and systems. As a result, it plays a vital role in communication between our nervous system and our cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems. It also reads our gut’s microbiome and regulates our body’s inflammatory response based on whether or not it detects disease-causing bacteria. Therefore, it’s not just external factors that can affect mood, stress levels, and disease caused by chronic inflammation, but the health of the gut.
Because this nerve communicates with nearly every part of the body, its health is vital to both physical and emotional wellbeing. Some people naturally have a stronger vagus response than others, meaning their bodies relax faster after stress. The strength of your vagus response is known as vagal tone, and genetics are partially responsible for how high or low it is. However, tone can be improved through a variety of simple techniques, including breathwork, meditation, and even abdominal massage.
Healthy, high vagal tone is marked by an increase in heart rate when you inhale and a decrease when you exhale. The bigger the difference between your heart rate on inhalations/exhalations, the higher your vagal tone. Breathing deeply from the diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs, with a long, slow exhale, activates the vagus nerve, slowing your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure—particularly when you’re under stress. This kind of slow, rhythmic breathing causes the nerve to release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which acts as a natural tranquilizer that slows your heart rate, calms you down, and lowers your inflammatory response.
As you might guess, higher vagal tone is associated with physical and emotional wellbeing, while lower vagal tone is linked to inflammation, heart attacks, stroke, and low mood/depression. Research has shown that people who suffer from inflammatory autoimmune conditions often also have less heart rate variability—aka, low vagal tone. Low vagal tone triggers the production of inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which leads to an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity (our fight-or-flight response) and stress hormones, which in turn leads to disease-causing chronic inflammation.
While vagal tone is partially predetermined by your genetics, there are ways to increase it and improve both your physical and psychological wellbeing. In addition to slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing, there are several other techniques you can use to stimulate this powerful nerve:
Ujjayi Breathing, also known as “ocean” or “Darth Vader” breath for the sound it makes, is an excellent breathing technique that stimulates the vagus nerve. To perform, sit up tall and comfortably. Lengthen and deepen your inhales and exhales, setting an even breathing pace. Constrict the back of your throat slightly as you inhale and exhale, so that you make a soft hissing sound as you breathe. After a few minutes, you should feel noticeably calmer.
Humming, Ohm-ing or Singing a Song stimulates the vagus nerve because it is connected to your vocal cords.
Use the Diving Reflex. When you dive underwater, the nerves in your face send a message to the vagus nerve that regulates your heart rate, increases blood flow to the brain, and relaxes your body. Diving headfirst into a cold pool might not be convenient but can be replicated by splashing your face with cold water.
Yoga and Tai Chi both increase vagus nerve activity as well as activate the parasympathetic nervous system as a whole.
A Healthy Gut and Its Microbiome can be just as responsible for sending signals of stress to the brain as external factors, so making sure your gut has enough healthy bacteria helps maintain a positive feedback loop.
Mindfulness Meditation—and particularly Loving-Kindness Meditation—can be especially helpful in increasing vagal tone. Research shows that positive emotions and strong social relationships also help maintain the positive feedback loop through your vagus nerve. Loving-Kindness Meditation is an easy way to self-generate these kinds of positive emotions. A script can be found HERE.
Abdominal Self-Massage is another way to reduce inflammation and increase vagal tone. Lie somewhere comfortable and place your hands just below your breastbone. Gently stroke downward towards your abdomen for a few minutes, cycling one hand over the other. Next, make small circular motions on your abdomen with your fingertips, starting at the sides of your belly and slowly working your way inward and downward. Progressively apply firmer (yet comfortable) pressure.
Over time, consistent practice of any of these techniques can have a major impact on your overall health, especially if you suffer from chronic inflammation or pain. Research has shown that increased vagal tone can also help combat depression and anxiety, regulate blood sugar, lower high blood pressure, soothe digestive problems, and lessen migraine instances, among other health improvements. While a powerful tool, vagus nerve stimulation is just one way to reduce the ill effects of chronic inflammation.
Proper nutrition, exercise, and good quality sleep are also key—but can be hard to navigate on your own. If you need assistance improving your health, please reach out to me. I’m here to help!