The key phrase here is: “Use it or lose it”.
Many of the following ways of stimulating the vagus nerve do so by activating regions of the body that are controlled or innervated by the vagus. Like everything in your body, the way to keep your vagus nerve healthy and strong is to make sure it’s getting a good workout.
Before we get to the list of techniques, it’s worth getting a measure of your starting point. The health of your vagus nerve is often measured by the strength of the signal that travels down it and is generally referred to as Vagal Tone. If you haven’t already done so, you should consider taking our vagal tone calculator questionnaire, which will give you a good idea of how healthy your vagal tone is.
Another good way of measuring your vagal tone is by measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is often used as a proxy for vagal tone. Typically, the better your HRV, the better your vagal tone; and improving one, usually improves the other. You can read more about that here.
There’s just one more thing that it’s really important to understand before we get onto the list of techniques you can use to stimulate your vagus nerve.
Your vagus nerve is your body’s braking system. It is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which becomes activated to slow you down and relax you after periods of stress and fast action -- whether that’s brief excursion or prolonged and intense.
People sometimes mistcontrue this however. They think of an entire day of stress followed by an evening of relaxation. But it’s not quite like that. Actually your body is continually aiming for what is referred to as homeostasis -- which effectively means a balanced bodily state.
Even as you breathe in and out, the two halves of your nervous system -- the sympathetic and the parasympathetic -- work in concert with each other. For example, as you breathe in, the sympathetic system increases your heart rate to quickly absorb the incoming oxygen, then as you breathe out, the parasympathetic system works to slow your heart down again, hence keeping your body in rhythm with your breathing. So in a way, the inner biological processes of your body constantly rise and fall like the waves of the ocean, building energy and then dissipating it.
When we are stressed the sympathetic nervous system becomes dominant and highly active. The parasympathetic become less active and dormant. This pushes your body out of its equilibrium state, leaving it in a constant state of heightened arousal.
This arousal might, of course, be crucial for survival. You will need your heart racing, your blood pumping and your muscles working hard if you are to escape danger or meet a threat. But equally, you need to be able to bring yourself back to equilibrium after the threat is no longer immediate.
The problems begin to occur if imbalances persist for prolonged periods of time. Such persistent levels of stress can lead to health problems. It can weaken the parasympathetic system, which becomes increasingly unable to apply the brakes on your bodily stress levels.
With all this in mind and without any more delay, let’s get onto our list of things to strengthen your vagal tone…
As the vagus nerve passes down through your body, it branches into the neck where it is connected to the vocal cords and muscles which help in the swallowing process. Humming, singing or chanting activates these muscles and the vocal cords which then stimulate activity in the vagus nerve.
Studies have shown that people who sing in quoirs have stronger than average vagal tone.
On the other hand, ancient forms of meditation often involved slow, rhythmic chanting to help maintain a calm and relaxed state of mind. So if you are not such a confident singer, you could try sitting cross-legged, closing your eyes and chanting “Ohm” for a few minutes every morning or evening.
If you want to build something into your daily life, occasionally gargling water before you swallow is another method you could use to incorporate some vagus nerve stimulation into everyday activities.
Another technique which is commonly associated with meditation is controlled breathing. The vagus nerve innervates the throat, lungs and heart. These regions contain special nerves called ‘baroreceptors’ which feed information back to your brain about your blood pressure.
One of the major roles that your vagus nerve plays in your body is rapid blood pressure and heart rate regulation. Breathing deeply and slowly alters the blood pressure around your lungs and heart, triggering a vagal nerve response to control the rate of your heart beat and the dilation of your arteries to reduce blood pressure.
This process is linked to the relaxation you feel from deep, controlled breathing.
The two methods above are both tools that are in themselves used to help in meditation. Slowing down your body and focusing your mind on positive emotions and bodily awareness reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant. This has been shown to have an indirect effect on the vagus nerve, along with the direct effects that result from controlled breathing or chanting.
Combining these first three techniques -- chanting, breathing and meditating -- into a one daily session is one of the most positive things you can do to improve your vagal tone and general health and well-being.
Exposure to cold has been shown in a number of human and animal studies to increase activity of the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system in general. The precise mechanism of this is not completely understood but it could be that any challenging conditions that you expose your body to will trigger nervous system responses to rapidly regulate bodily processes. As the vagus nerve is responsible for signalling these changes it gives the vagus nerve an immediate workout.
If having a cold shower sounds too unbearable, try washing your face with cold water or simply walking around in the garden for a few minutes without putting your coat on. As you become more accustomed to the occasional cold, you can try something like ending your shower with 30 seconds of cold water; and, as you become accustomed to that, try lengthening the time -- if you feel you can manage it!
In some germanic and scandinavian cultures it is not uncommon to swim in lakes during the winter or go straight from a sauna into the outside cold or snow. Challenging the body in this way is believed to strengthen the nervous system and immune system.
However, you should not try anything too challenging if you have any cardiovascular or other medical conditions. If this is the case, always consult your doctor or physician first.
If being cold, or meditating isn’t your thing, you could try massages. General massages certainly work to relax you, which will of course suppress the sympathetic nervous system and allow the parasympathetic to dominate, but specific kinds of massages will also directly target the vagus nerve.
Foot massages have been shown to specifically affect vagus nerve activity and help modulate heart rate variability. These effects are not fully explicable though because the vagus nerve does not directly innervate that far down your body.
A more direct method targets a branch of the vagus nerve that innervates the ear, especially around the tragus and the cymba choncha. Ear massages have strong relaxing effects because the nerves in this region are stimulated. Massaging the tragus or within the concha will directly activate the vagus nerve.
Early engineered methods of vagus nerve stimulation (before the advent of electrical and electromagnetic stimulation) used mechanical methods such as a minute vibrating metal rod, pulsating against the ear to stimulate the vagus.
Some people will also have their tragus pierced which allows them to vacillate the piercing to directly target the vagus whenever they feel they need to.
Also, as the vagus nerve passes down your neck, along the carotid arterial sheath, it is possessive to massage the neck and shoulders to directly and locally stimulate the vagus nerve.
This last method must be done with caution however, as it can induce sudden dilation of the arteries in the neck, which could result in a fainting risk. Only try this with guided assistance and in a well supported seated or lying down position.
Exercise is just generally good for you, so it’s always a good idea.
High-intensity Interval Exercise in particular has been shown to improve heart rate variability (HRV) and reduce heart arrhythmias -- even after just one session! Scientists believe that the intensity of exertion creates a burst of sympathetic dominance which is followed by a marked “vagal withdrawal” which entrains an otherwise relatively dormant parasympathetic system to become highly activated.
Hence regular intense exercise helps to entrain an overall higher activation level of the vagus nerve.
Even mild exercise is known to improve the digestive process which is highly regulated by the vagus nerve. One good form of mild exercise is yoga, which if combined with meditation, can offer multiple benefits for achieving nervous system balance.
One challenge here is that good vagal tone is strongly linked to our capacity to engage in physical activity. So if you already have an impaired vagal tone, you may find it harder to motivate yourself to begin exercising, or you may find it harder to maintain an active routine until your vagus nerve health has recovered to some degree.
As we alluded to earlier in the section on bodily homeostasis, many of our nervous system health issues stem from not giving ourselves a chance to re-introduce balance into our lives. So one of the best ways to counteract an over-dominance of the sympathetic nervous system and a corresponding weak vagal tone is to get plenty of rest and recuperation.
Spending time socialising, talking, laughing, and getting a good night’s sleep are all great for vagus nerve health.
The problem with this is, as with physical exercise, that a poor vagal tone can interfere with sleep and can be the root cause of mood swings and depression, making it very hard to wind down after periods of stress.
If not addressed early enough this can lead to negative, reinforcing cycles.
Vagusnet is of course a vagus nerve stimulation device manufacturer and we wouldn’t have started selling such a device if we didn’t believe it could help people. What we realised is while there are many ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, sometimes people are so far away from having a healthy vagus nerve that it can interfere with their ability to adopt many of the practices that we’ve described so far.
Having a good vagal tone actually increases your capacity to relax in the evening, get better sleep, exercise for longer or tolerate the cold. So sometimes people need that helping hand to get a start on the sort of healthy living that will support strong vagal tone and good nervous system balance.
We became initially convinced of this by reading some research from one of the UK’s leading Universities and everything we’re learnt since has supported this.
However, using the vagus.net stimulator without introducing some other supporting activities will reduce the chances of success, so we always encourage our customers to experiment with all or some of the practices listed here.
The final thing we would note is that an electrical stimulator such as the vagus.net device is not the only option available to you if you feel you need something to kickstart your change in routine. There is some evidence that electromagnetic nerve stimulation is a viable alternative to electrical or mechanical stimulation. We don’t currently build such a device, but there is every indication that it could work in a similar way.