By Dimitri Ehrlich
Think of it as Pilates for the parasympathetic nervous system: Toning your vagus nerve may be the single most important way to promote wellness of both mind and body.
What exactly is the vagus nerve? It’s the longest cranial nerve in our body, and connects the brain to vital organs and the microbiome. It’s the key to healthy functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system and impacts breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which affect our mental health.
“There is a cascade of positive changes that happen in the mind and body when our vagus nerve is stimulated,” says Alexis Menken, a clinical psychologist in Montclair, New Jersey. “Toning your vagus nerve reduces heart rate and blood pressure, stimulates digestion, and basically makes you happier and healthier.” Unfortunately, the pandemic, especially during periods of quarantine and lockdown, removed us from many of the little things that helped tone the vagus nerve. “The result,” says Menken, “has been a tsunami of mental health needs, and an intimacy famine that has increased gun violence, domestic abuse and a host of other social problems.”
If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry. Here are eight things you can do to proactively target this all-important nerve:
1. TAKE A DEEP BREATH
No surprise, deep and slow breathing is a great way to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve. Just take a few minutes to pay attention to your breathing. Relax and concentrate on breathing from your lower belly. Your diaphragm should expand when you inhale.
2. SING A SONG
Because the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, singing, humming, chanting and even gargling can stimulate it. The next time you’re feeling stressed-out, try chanting or singing your favorite song. Or grab some Listerine and freshen up your breath and your vagus nerve.
All kinds of meditation, including visualization and mantra recitation, can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. Studies have shown that meditation can increase positive emotions, reduce sympathetic fight-or-flight activity and increase vagal modulation.
4. EAT MORE FISH
Found primarily in fish, omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity. (If you’re vegan, you can get omega-3 fatty acids from walnuts, soy foods, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds.)
5. GET MOVING
Exercise has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. With spring in the air, now is the perfect time to spend some more time walking, running or exercising in a park.
6. GET COLD
Exposing yourself to a short burst of acute cold has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. You can try ending your shower with 30 seconds of cold water, or even just splashing your face with cold water.
7. INDULGE YOURSELF
While taking an ice-cold shower isn’t for everyone, there are more pleasurable ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. Research shows that getting a massage can increase vagal activity and vagal tone. Foot massage, in particular, has been shown to increase vagal modulation.
8. BELLY LAUGH
The old saying “laughter is the best medicine” turns out to be true when it comes to the vagus nerve. Laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability and vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and have a mutually reciprocal effect. So curl up with your favorite comedy—or better yet, enjoy some laughs with friends. Social contact is also a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve.