If there is one that deserves daily attention, it’s the vagus nerve. It’s the longest cranial nerve in the body, extending from the brainstem, through the neck and chest, down to the belly and pelvic floor. While it is connected to every system in the body, it’s most deeply integrated with the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), immune response, the gut, and our sexual organs in the pelvis. It’s kind of a big deal.
Due to its long path, the vagus nerve is also known as “the wanderer” nerve. It’s no wonder such a huge nerve has a huge impact on our mood and how we react to external stressors, which has a cascade effect on the overall health of the body. Loss of tone to the vagus nerve can result in emotional stress, inexplicable physical pain in various areas of the body, and fatigue.
These are vital markers because they affect our immune system and inflammatory responses. A low-functioning immune system or high inflammation can lead to disease, and disease can cause damage to the vagus nerve. A damaged vagus nerve can’t send signals properly to the stomach muscles, the brain, or the pelvic floor, which can cause chronic problems with our mental health, nervous system, digestion, energy, reproductive health, and more.
Strong vagal tone is the baseline when it comes to regulating our moods and emotions, but it’s also super important for hormonal health and, ultimately, very hard-to-trace gut imbalances. That’s because the vagus nerve provides a channel for all of our sensory information and tension receptors, connecting with areas like the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and sensory endings in the liver and pancreas.
So how do we tone our vagus nerve?
Slow, controlled belly breathing
In order to make sure we have a healthy, toned vagus nerve, we need to stimulate it, aka Vagal Nerve Stimulation, or VNS. There are multiple ways to do this, since it spans such a large expanse of our body. One of these ways is deep belly breathing. Start by slowing your breath way down, to about six breaths per minute. Inhale into your chest, and then into your belly, expanding your rib cage and abdominal muscles before slowly exhaling all the air out.
Cold exposure can lower the sympathetic response, and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve, stimulating it for a quick jolt, then a very calm after-effect. Cold plunges or cold showers are a great way to stimulate the VN.
Singing, humming, or even “om” chanting
Because the vagus nerve is a very real, physical entity, it is attached at the back of your throat near the vocal cords. Even gargling water can help to stimulate the VN.
Scalp or foot massage
While the top of our skull and our feet are not directly in contact with the VN, these deeply relaxing forms of self-massage will stimulate our parasympathetic system, thus stimulating the vagus nerve.