Right now, you may be thinking, "what in the world is the vagus nerve?" Don’t worry, a significant number of the population also doesn’t know what this wondrous part of the human body is either.
The vagus nerve begins at the brain stem, traveling throughout the body’s central nervous system, connecting to or passing through the neck, chest, heart, lungs, abdomen, and digestive tract. There is a left vagus nerve and a right as well, each traveling down their corresponding side of the body. This is always referred to as the gut and the brain connection.
What are the functions of the vagus nerve? The Cleveland Clinic details that these nerves play a role in the body’s skin and muscle sensations, digestion, blood pressure, taste, heart rate, and immune system responses, just to name a few. The vagus nerve essentially is part of the body’s involuntary bodily functions, or the things we don’t think about doing, like breathing or digestion.
You’ve probably heard of the sympathetic nervous system, or the thing that causes people’s ‘flight or fight’ response. You could say that the vagus nerve is a part of the SNS’s other half or polar opposite, which is the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s been described as the system that controls the human body’s ‘rest and digest functions’, and the vagus nerves, both the right and left together, hold about 75% of the PNS’s various nerve fibers.
As you now know, these nerves are important to your body’s everyday operations. It’s critical that we make sure to take care of them because if we don’t, there are some pretty unpleasant symptoms that you may experience. The Cleveland Clinic writes that signs of negative vagus nerve conditions include loss of voice, loss of gag reflex, acid reflux, abdominal pain, changes to blood pressure, and more. Vagal dysfunction can also leave you more vulnerable to developing depression and anxiety.
But not to worry. There are a multitude of ways that you can take care of this precious collection of nerves and we’ve collected the top 10 and listed them below.
10 Ways to Take Care of Your Vagus Nerve
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto.
- It’s been concluded that engaging in exercise, whether it’s walking or hitting the weights, is a stimulant for your vagus nerve. When your blood’s pumping and the heart rate is up, the vagus nerve benefits from this activity, not to mention the rest of your body does as well.
- You have probably heard about how laughing is beneficial to your body, not just your mood. Did you know this included the vagus nerve? In a study conducted at the University of Ottawa, when you engage in laughing, the vagus nerve is being stimulated, which is fantastic for its overall health. If it’s been a long day and you’re thinking about maybe bailing on dinner with friends, consider your vagus nerve - go out and smile, it’ll thank you for it!
3. Cold Water Therapy
- We covered this topic a while back during Wellness Wednesday, so you may remember the long list of benefits that come with diving into cold water therapy. This includes the activation of the vagus nerve, which equals less activity in your sympathetic nervous system. Basically, this means that there is a relaxing effect to immersing yourself in shockingly cold water. If you’re having an off day and are up to the task, try making your shower super cold for 15 seconds and see how you feel.
4. Singing and Music
- This may seem strange, but trust us. As you know, the vagus nerve travels through the neck, and on its way through the body, it connects to your vocal cords. When you hum or sing, the vocal cords are activated, which means the vagus nerve gets some stimulation.
- It’s also said on the Cleveland Clinic’s website that sounds may also work to activate your vagus nerve. Next time you’re frustrated at work or wherever you may be, take a breather and put on your favorite track or go-to karaoke song. Don’t hold back and sing your heart out, and take good care of that vagus nerve.
Photo by Anna Tarazevich.
- Not only do massages feel amazing, but they have some fantastic benefits for your body. When you are going through a massage service, it’s very likely that your vagus nerve will be stimulated and activated. Specific points on the body can be especially effective in this stimulation and this includes massages of the feet.
- When you undergo a reflexology service on the feet, your sympathetic nervous system is said to ease up its activity and the parasympathetic system or the vagus nerves begin to operate more. You don’t have to go to an expensive massage therapist or salon service to stimulate your vagus nerve through massage, you can do it yourself! Just look up some reflexology exercises online and begin to strengthen that vagus nerve.
6. Consuming Probiotic-Rich Foods
- Probiotic foods have been trendy for quite some time, with its gut health benefits taking the main stage when it comes to promoting this type of food. But did you know that it’s not just the gut that sees positive results from probiotics?
- In a paper written at University of Ottawa, it was concluded that the bacteria lying in the gut affects the vagus nerve. Probiotics act through the vagus nerve to help with problems like stress and anxiety. At your next meal, consider adding probiotic-rich foods to help out your vagus nerve.
7. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- If you’re into eating healthy foods and supplements, you’re likely aware that omega 3 fatty acids are good fats that benefit your heart health and the brain too. Medical research has also concluded that these fatty acids can increase activity in your vagus nerve, which means good stimulation for this important system of nerves.
Photo by Oluremi Adebayo
- In another Wellness Wednesday post we went over the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. This trend has taken the world by storm and for good reason: the benefits to the practice seem to be endless. Stimulation of the vagus nerve is another positive effect that we can add to the list.
- It’s a well known fact that deep and slow breathing is an essential part of meditation which helps to improve our mental health. When engaged in such a practice, the parasympathetic system’s activity increases, which means the vagus nerve undergoes stimulation.
- Note - this beneficial activation of the vagus nerve isn’t accomplished by taking a few breaths in silence. You must be very intentional in taking deep powerful breaths. Feel the diaphragm really expand to its fullest and exhale slowly, experiencing every bit of air leaving your stomach.
9. Vagus-Nerve-Specific Exercises
- On the Youtube channel "Sukie Baxter - Whole Body Revolution," there are some fantastic exercises posted that target the vagus nerve specifically. This includes neck and rib cage mobility activities, along with SCM stretches. Take a look at this helpful video: Vagus Nerve Exercises To Rewire Your Brain From Anxiety
10. Cut Out Toxic Foods & Enjoy Anti-Inflammatory Diet
- Foods that cause inflammatory reactions affect the vagus nerve. This includes products like fast food, processed carbs, food products with added sugars, and fats.
- In order to really focus on your vagus nerve health, you have to start taking care of the entire body. By cleaning up your diet, your body will be able to function as it was meant to, allowing you to more effectively stimulate the vagus nerve.
Written by Bridget McIver