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How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health
Adapted from – January 21, 2017 Jordan Fallis
“By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.”
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist
Stimulating my vagus nerve has played a key role in the management of my mental health over the years.
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs.
In fact, the word “vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs.
The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
But what you really need to pay special attention to is the “tone” of your vagus nerve. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve.
Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa (5).
“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.”
— Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels (1-3).
Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV).
If you’re vagal tone is low, don’t worry. But you don’t need to go down that route.
- Cold Exposure; “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve (11).
- Deep and Slow Breathing; It’s been shown to reduce anxiety stress
- Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling; This is discussed more in Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?
- Probiotics; It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria
- Lactobacillus Rhamnosus stress hormones
- Lactobacillus Rhamnosus
- Bifidobacterium Longum
- Meditation; mediation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids; Omega-3 fatty acids are so critical for brain and mental health They’ve been shown to help people overcome addiction “leaky brain” cognitive decline
- omega-3 fatty acids are high fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance” (35).
- Exercise; I’ve already discussed how exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone brain’s mitochondria reverse cognitive decline. But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health.
- Massage proven to decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response.
- Socializing and Laughing; I’ve already discussed how socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone. And now I’ve now that they are likely taking my own advice here, as I’m an introvert and often avoid socializing too much.
You don’t have to be controlled by your body and mind. You have the power to tell them that it’s time to relax and destress.