With a few simple vagus nerve exercises, you can shift from stress to rest in just a few minutes.
The vagus or “wandering” nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It has a huge influence on respiration, digestive function and heart rate, all of which greatly affect stress levels, mental health and general wellbeing. It's a power player because the vagus nerve bi-directionally transmits information from the brain down through our vital organs and gut, and from the organs and gut up to the brain. The vagus nerve is essentially the communication super highway of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS vacillates among 3 primary phases: the ventral vagal, which is safe and social; the sympathetic, which is fight or flight; and the dorsal vagal, which is shut down. In the sympathetic and dorsal states, the vagus nerve is signaling the brain into survival/stress mode. When our vagal nerves are registering safety and in a ventral state, we experience relaxed regulation and a sense of connection.
With brief, simple exercises, we can influence the tone of our vagus nerve. Vagal tone reflects vagus nerve functioning. Increasing our vagal tone stimulates parasympathetic mechanisms (rest and digest), and a robust vagal tone promotes our body's’ ability to process and relax more quickly after a stressful event. Practicing vagal exercises during moments of stress or anxiety helps put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system that otherwise signals the body to prepare for fight, fright, flee or fawn. Practicing daily vagal exercises - when not activated - builds our resilience to mitigate future stress.
Studies show that high vagal tone, good mood and physical health have a mutually beneficial relationship. This means that the more we build vagal tone, the more our mental and physical health improves - and vice versa. We can increase vagal tone in a number of ways. The vagus nerve is the central avenue of the Gut-Brain Axis, so anything that is good for the gut and brain is good for the vagus nerve.**
My best recommendation is to practice these exercises in short duration a few times per day. It’s usually best to begin with one technique, see how it works out, and then integrate another if you feel so called. For more ways to reduce worry, stress and anxiety, and improve mood, wellbeing and health, check out my post on Natural Stress & Anxiety Reduction Techniques.
How to Increase Vagal Tone and Nervous System Resilience
A Vagal Toning Exercise adapted from the work of Stanley Rosenberg. Thanks, Stanley!
** It’s important to note that people with trauma histories often experience intense autonomic activation, which can impede our body's ability to self-regulate and to feel safe - even in relationships. In survival mode, patterns of connection are upstaged by patterns of protection (and isolation). Early adaptive survival responses often become habitual autonomic patterns. Vagal toning helps re-pattern the automated responses of self-protection, shut-down and withdrawal. Re-patterning can take time: 2-3 reps a few minutes per day for weeks, if not months. Obvs, you're so worth it!
More Vagal Toning Exercises
There are a number simple techniques that can increase your vagal tone in only a matter of minutes. The embedded video highlights one exercise. Here are a few more:
A supine version of the exercise demonstrated above. Laying on your back, legs splayed or feet flat with knees bent, place your hands behind your head at the base of the skull. Keep your head facing towards the ceiling while gently drawing your eyes as far to the left as feels comfortable. Softly maintain your gaze to the left until the body instinctively takes a deep inhale, sighs, yawns or swallows - usually 45 to 60 seconds. I find it helpful to count my breaths to remain focused. Repeat this with your head facing the ceiling moving your eyes to the right - hold there for 45-60 seconds.
Sitting upright with the back supported, slowly bring your left ear towards your left shoulder. Relax any muscles in the shoulders and neck - they tend to tense up in this position. Draw your peepers up to the ceiling and hold your gaze there until you naturally take a deeper inhale, sigh, yawn or swallow. Repeat this on the other side with your right ear to your right shoulder - this usually takes just 30-60 seconds on each side.
In a relaxed standing pose, loosely hold your elbows in opposite hands. Rotate your torso to the left and then to the right. Do these gentle twists five times. Bring your elbows up to shoulder height, rotate the torso to the left and to the right five times. Raise your arms above the head, rotate the torso left and right five times.
Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate the vagus nerve. For example, regulating your breath by slowly inhaling and exhaling six times over the course of a minute has been shown to relieve stress, reduce anxiety and activate the vagus nerve.
*Inhale through your nose from your diaphragm, expand through the belly. Exhale slowly through your mouth. The long slow exhale is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. Repeat this cycle for 1-3 minutes.
Vagus nerve massage is applying light to moderate pressure along areas of the body where the vagus nerve is closest to the skin: at the occiput (base of skull), along sides of the neck/near the carotid artery and the top of the shoulders (trapezius and levator muscles in particular). Gently massaging these areas increases vagal tone and slows heart rate. Full body massage helps the body relieve tension and sooth tired and aching muscles. Relaxation of the muscles around the neck and shoulders automatically increase vagal tone and also also increase the production of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.
Micro-current vagal toning devices have more recently appeared on the market. These can be used at home, focusing on the aspects of the vagal nerve along the carotid artery. Treatments generally take only 2 minutes.
Research shows that regular cold exposure can lower the sympathetic “fight, fright, flee or fawn” response and increases parasympathetic “rest, relax, and digest” functioning.
Examples of cold exposure (or immersion): Cold showers, or ending a warm shower with cold water for 20-30 seconds. Exercising outdoors in colder weather without wearing a ton of layers. Cold plunge in a pool or bath. Dip your face in cold water.
I’ll never be able to say enough good things about meditation. A powerful relaxation tool, meditation increases vagal tone and the brain’s production of feel-good chemicals. It can also promote a sense of deep connectivity and compassion towards yourself and others. Heart-centered practices in particular. Meditation naturally reduces sympathetic “fight, flight, freeze” and increases parasympathetic “rest, digest and relax” states.
Humming, Chanting, Singing and Gargling
Even though there’s not much research devoted to more subtle practices, many ancient systems of medicine have relied on humming, singing and chanting mantras to calm the nervous system and quiet the mind - usually to deepen and focus meditation. The vagal nerves are connected to the vocal cords and muscles along the back of the throat. Humming, chanting, singing and gargling all activate these muscles thereby stimulating the vagus nerve. These practices increase heart-rate variability, which is a strong indicator of good vagal tone.
Exercise is crucial for optimal brain-body health. It’s one of the 3 main pillars of medicine - along with Diet and Sleep. Exercise increases circulation, helps balance hormones, enhances healing/repair, reduces the risk of disease, strengthens the bones and muscles, reverses cognitive decline and improves overall wellbeing. Not surprisingly, exercise also positively stimulates the vagus nerve, enhancing feelings of relaxation and ease.
A healthy gut microbiome improves vagal tone, brain functioning and emotional wellbeing. Fermented foods, if you tolerate them, are a great way to introduce “good” bacteria into the gut. Probiotics are another great way. The single strain probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus is tolerated by most people (even those with histamine intolerance, MCAS and autoimmune disorders). Research shows that the L.Rhamnosus strain alone can reduce stress hormones, decrease anxiety and depression, improve intestinal health and nutrient absorption and increase GABA receptors in the brain.
Another low-histamine single-strain probiotic to consider is Bifidobacterium Longum which, like other “good" bacteria, helps the body digest food, absorb nutrients, and ward off infectious diseases. Research shows that B.Longum also reduces inflammation by regulating cytokines and can reduce anxiety. And, improvements in gut health are transmitted into elevated mood via, you guessed it, the vagal superhighway. Gentle reminder: supplements are rarely holy grails - what works for one body, may not work for another. Dis-ease and Healing is multi-factorial and layered. Talk with your healthcare providers and see what works for you.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are fats that your body can’t produce on its own and are essential for brain and nervous system health. Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids also increase vagal tone and increase heart rate variability - stimulating vagus nerve activity. Great sources of Omega-3s include fish, krill (tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans), seeds, nuts, eggs and soy. High levels of Omega-3s is linked to “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance.” Note: If you have food allergies and/or are histamine intolerant, it's often best to avoid fish, nuts and seeds in all of their forms. Sadly.
Polyvagal theory suggests that the parasympathetic nervous system is divided into two branches. As noted above, a "ventral" vagal state supports positive mood and social interaction, while a "dorsal" vagal state shuts us down and can lead to emotional depression, anxiety and isolation.
Social engagement and laughter move us into and reinforces the ventral state, increasing our heart-rate variability (thereby ventral tone) and elevating mood. Interestingly, laughter is a common byproduct of vagal nerve stimulation. Don't be surprised if you start giggling after practicing vagal tone exercises.
Of course, no post is complete without at least an honorable mention of the ancient and incredibly effective system of Chinese Medicine. Research shows that acupuncture improves heart rate variability, increases circulation, regulates autonomic capacity, releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, and reduces inflammation - all of which improve vagal tone and vagus nerve functioning.
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***Not a doctor. The ideas offered here are simply offerings - all in the hope of supporting you on the path. If something doesn't resonate, leave it. Nothing in here should be considered medical advice or a substitute for professional, allopathic Western medical care.***