Are you wracked with anxiety and struggling to regulate your nervous system?
Do you have depression, low blood pressure or poor gastrointestinal health that's made worse by stressful situations?
If this sounds like you, you may have poor vagal tone.
Keep reading as we explore the vagus nerve. If you ever wish you could flick a switch and turn on your relaxation response, this article is for you!
What is the Vagus Nerve?
No, it has nothing to do with Las Vegas, the party city!
The vagus nerve is the 10th and longest of the 12 cranial nerves; making up a major part of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. It's named after the Latin word vagus, meaning "the wanderer", because it (or technically they, being a pair of nerves) starts in the brainstem and its various branches travel throughout the body down to the colon. As such, it interacts with all your organs – think the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and digestive tract – and creates a feedback loop between the brain and the various body systems (1).
Despite its importance, most people don't know about the vagus nerve.
How Does the Vagus Nerve Influence Health?
The vagus nerve controls unconscious and involuntary processes like your heartbeat, breathing, sweating, blood pressure, hormone levels and the movement of your digestive tract. By triggering the "rest-and-digest" side of the nervous system, this powerful nerve supports emotional regulation, reproduction, tissue repair and healing.
Interestingly, the vagus nerve also plays a vital role in the "gut-brain axis", the bidirectional communication between the enteric nervous system (ENS) in the gut and the central nervous system (2). How well this axis functions (or doesn't function) has a major impact on mood, digestion and immunity.
In short, you wouldn't survive without it!
Explaining Vagal Tone
We're getting into slightly more technical territory now. Bear with us; we've got some great tips to help you!
Vagal tone is all about nervous system health and is an indicator of stress resilience. One way scientists measure vagal tone is through heart rate variability (HRV), the time between each heartbeat and how quickly it changes. For example, in people with high vagal tone, the heart rate normalises after (physical or mental) stress and the body quickly returns to a state of balance known as homeostasis. Athletes and yogis typically have a high vagal tone!
Low vagal tone is associated with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, or living in a state of "fight or flight". This results in poor HRV, difficulty relaxing, insomnia, chronic inflammation, constipation and more (3). Take note: chronic stress, social isolation and lack of physical activity are not recipes for a healthy vagal tone.
8 Tips for Stimulating the Vagus Nerve and Improving Vagal Tone
It might sound odd that you could control something that's autonomic. However, "hacking" the vagus nerve has been practised for decades. A 2016 study found electrically stimulating the vagus nerve using a non-invasive device (using the surface of the ear) helped those with mild or moderate major depressive disorder (4).
Just like you'd train a muscle in the gym, the more you "tone" the vagus nerve the easier it becomes to tap into this part of your nervous system and improve stress resilience.
Here are some of the best non-invasive tips for improving vagal tone. Incorporating just one or two of these tips into your daily routine is a great form of self-care.
Slow Your Breathing and Extend Your Exhale
If you're breathing, you're influencing vagal tone – either for good or bad!
When you're stressed, quick and shallow breathing is all too common. This is the result of a sympathetic response, which puts you into survival mode and weakens your vagal tone. On the other hand, when you breathe slowly and rhythmically, the vagus nerve triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and you feel calm. Just think about how the belly rises and falls when in a deep sleep.
Exhaling, in particular, stimulates vagus nerve activity. So, consciously influencing your breath and extending your exhale is one of the best tools for nervous system flexibility (5).
We love "cadence breathing."
- Come into the present moment and tune into your body
- Breathe in through your nose slowly for a count of 4, using your diaphragm and expanding into your belly
- Breathe out through your mouth for a count of 6, making a gentle "shhh" sound
Practise the "Ocean Breath"
This is a breathing exercise you need to add to your toolkit. The ocean breath – known as Ujjayi (ooh-jaa-ee) breathing to those who have been to a yoga class – is a simple way to harness your breath and improve vagal tone. Practising it has been found to reduce anxiety and enhance sleep quality (6).
Activate your diaphragm and inhale through your nose slowly for a count of 5, while slightly constricting the back of your throat to slow the movement of air. This creates a sound a bit like an ocean wave. Continue to slightly constrict your throat and breathe out for a count of 5 while making the same gentle sound. Repeat for 5 minutes or longer.
It's a fantastic tool to use before bed for a great night’s sleep!
Eat Fermented Foods
The trillions of symbiotic microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract – the gut microbiome – produce neurotransmitters, short-chain fatty acids and other metabolites that send information to the central nervous system via the vagus nerve. A diverse and healthy gut microbiome is super important for supporting vagal tone and mental resilience.
The best way to promote this balance is by eating more fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, milk kefir, miso and tempeh. They're a rich source of probiotic bacteria and prebiotic fibre that ensure the little critters can survive and proliferate once they reach the gut!
Try Cold Exposure
This one may sound a bit kooky at first, but hear us out!
Whether it is an ice bath, icy sea swim, or a cold shower, cold exposure therapy has long been practised to influence health. It might sound like a punishment, but science shows it's a powerful health practice.
When you get into cold water, receptors on your skin send a message to your brain that triggers the sympathetic nervous system and puts you into survival mode. However, the body quickly realises the situation isn't dangerous and the vagus nerve triggers the brain to down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system (7). As your body adapts to the temperature, it shifts into a parasympathetic state, providing a deep sense of calm.
Don't jump into a sub-zero ice bath right away! You don't want to shock your system. We suggest starting by taking a 10-second cold shower at the end of your warm shower. You can also take a quick dip in a cold body of water if that's accessible to you. If you do this consistently, you'll be able to work your way up to 30 seconds, 1 minute and eventually 2-3 minutes of cold exposure.
By regularly exposing yourself to an acute stressor like cold water for a short period, you become adept at switching on your relaxation response. Your vagal tone will become next level – with amazing knock-on effects for mood, immunity, inflammation and circulation!
However, if you have heart problems, it's best to skip this practice and choose another one on this list.
Hum, Sing or Chant
Have you experienced chanting during meditation? Do you love humming along to songs? If so, you know exactly how calming these things are!
Creating a vibration by singing, humming or chanting stimulates the vagus nerve via vocal cord muscles. It also supports vagal tone by slowing your breathing rate and improving heart rate variability (8). Many ancient religions and cultures have a history of chanting, and one wonders if they knew how amazing it is for mental and physical health!
Practising the "Om breath" is a great way to engage the vagus nerve by combining chanting and deep breathing (9).
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4
- Slowly exhale through your mouth with a deep, audible "ommmm" sound until all the air in your lungs has been expelled
- Repeat for a few minutes
This is a simple and effective intervention to calm your system, improve focus, boost digestion and enhance physical healing.
Focus on Social Connection
Human connection is vital for regulating your nervous system and improving life satisfaction. And science suggests this is linked to the vagus nerve! A study in Psychological Science found that meaningful social connections increased positive emotions, which stimulated vagal tone (10).
Unfortunately, a global pandemic isn't the best time to socialise! However, hugging and spending as much quality time as possible with the people in your "bubble" will make all the difference to your well-being. We also suggest organising zoom chats and game nights to connect with friends who you can't see in person.
Laughing helps to release feel-good chemicals in the body and may also influence health by stimulating vagal tone.
Engaging in regular laughter improves heart rate variability, reduces anxiety and makes you a happier, healthier person. No wonder "laughter yoga" classes – where facilitators lead participants through different laughing exercises – are skyrocketing in popularity!
So, take the night off and watch your favourite sitcom or comedy special. You can also try smiling widely and forcing yourself to laugh for 30 seconds — we guarantee you'll get genuine giggles and won't want to stop!
This list wouldn't be complete without mentioning meditation!
Meditation may seem like just another trendy self-care practice, but there is a huge amount of research behind its stress-relief and health benefits. By moving into the present moment and focusing on your breathing, meditation engages your rest-and-digest nervous system. It's basically like a gym session for your vagus nerve!
We know it can be tricky to find time as a busy woman. Luckily, even 5-10 minutes of regular meditation is beneficial for vagus nerve activation.
Need a physical reminder to bring you back into the here and now? Our Hey Luna meditation rings are fabulous (and glittery) mindfulness tools!
None of us can avoid stress in daily life and shouldn't want to. A certain amount of stress is useful for energy and motivation. What you want is to improve your vagal tone, so you build stress resilience and avoid getting stuck in a cycle of chronic stress.
Do you think you'd benefit from improving your vagal tone? Let us know your favourite stress reduction practices in the comments below!
- Kenny & Bordoni. (2021). Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve 10 (Vagus Nerve). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537171/
- Bonaz et al. (2018). The Vagus nerve at the interface of the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29467611/
- Bonaz et al. (2016). Vagal tone: effects on sensitivity, motility, and inflammation. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27010234/
- Fang et al. (2016). Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation modulates default mode network in major depressive disorder. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25963932/
- Zaccaro et al. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30245619/
- Dhruva et al. (2012). Yoga breathing for cancer chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22525009/
- Mäkinen et al. (2008). Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18785356/
- Bernardi et al. (2001). Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: a comparative study. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC61046/
- Bangalore et al. (2011). Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3099099/
- Kok et al. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23649562/
Katherine Tudsbury is a Nutritionist and freelance content writer with a passion for natural health and wellness. Born and raised in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa; she obtained her diploma in Nutritional Medicine from The University of West London in 2011. When she’s not researching and writing about all things wellness, Katherine enjoys baking healthy treats, learning Spanish, swimming in the sea and practicing breathwork!