The vagus nerve is the tenth nerve of the 12 cranial nerves, extending from the left and right side of the medulla oblongata section of the brainstem through the neck and thorax down to the abdomen. It is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves. It is also referred to as the “wanderer nerve” because of its ability to wander and branch to other parts of the body.
The vagus nerve is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system which helps you to relax after stress or danger. Also known as the rest and digest system, it serves to reverse the “fight or flight” response elicited by the sympathetic nervous system.
The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling some of your organ functions like digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, perspiration, and muscle sensations. It also regulates reflex actions, such as sneezing, swallowing, coughing, and vomiting.
Its activity starts from the neck, where it innervates most of the muscles of the pharynx and larynx (muscles responsible for swallowing and vocalization). The thorax serves as the major contributor of parasympathetic stimulation to the heart and promotes a reduction in the heart rate. In the intestines, it regulates glandular secretion and smooth muscle contraction. (2)
A simple illustration can be seen when a horn unexpectedly blares behind you, or when you prick your finger. The sympathetic system fires off signals which cause you to become startled or feel pain. The role of the vagus nerve here is to activate the parasympathetic system which sets in to counteract these responses, relieve tension and bring balance to the body.
The vagus nerve sends signals from the inner organs, such as the lungs, liver, gut, and heart to the brain.
Vagal nerve exercises are activities aimed at improving your vagal tone. Vagal tone is regarded as a measure of how well the vagus nerve is functioning. As you age, your vagal response decreases. Research carried out in 2010 indicated that there is a positive connection between a high vagal tone, positive emotions, and sound physical health. Hence, while it has been observed that some people have a stronger vagal tone than others, it is safe to say that the higher your vagal tone, the higher your chances of having improved mental and physical health. (3)
A healthy vagal nerve system is particularly helpful in boosting your mental health and combating stress and other health conditions like chronic pain and inflammation.
Stimulating your vagal nerve has been shown to increase your vagal tone.
Studies have suggested that stimulating the vagus nerve through regular exercises may play a therapeutic role in the reduction of stress and improving your overall well-being.
Some of these exercises include
Activities like tai chi and box breathing, help to stimulate the vagus nerve and restore balance to the body. It involves taking long, slow, and deep breaths in and out through your nose. This helps to activate the relaxation response. In a study carried out by Lu and Kuo, it was discovered that practicing Tai Chi enhanced vagal modulation and reduced sympathetic activity. (4)
Also, studies carried out in 2021, a five-minute session of slow, deep breathing with equal inhalation and exhalation aided in promoting balance between the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The practice of yoga has been shown to increase vagal tone and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Yoga raises vagus nerve action along the lymphatic system, leading to an increase in a calming neurotransmitter called GABA, in your brain.
Several yoga techniques help to stimulate your vagus nerve as you move the chest, spine, belly, and throat. They include the following:
● Easy Seated Twist
This can be done sitting on the floor or chair. It involves forming a twist by placing your left hand on the outside of your right leg while placing your right hand behind you. Inhale deeply and lengthen your spine, then on exhaling, deepen the twist of your spine toward the right.
● Forward Fold
This is done standing. You keep your feet apart at a hips-width distance and fold your upper body over your thighs. Let your arms hang while you bend slightly into your knees. Rest your belly on your thighs and relax into the posture as the crown of the head falls toward the mat. Remain in this posture as count up to ten
● Child’s Pose
Here, you spread your knees out wide and sit back on your heels. Extending your arms out long in front of you, let your chest incline toward the mat. Take a few deep breaths, and with every exhale, relax deeper. You can also stay in this pose for ten counts. (5)
Because the muscles of the vocal cords are connected to the vagus nerve, chanting and gargling are great ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. In a study conducted in 2021, ‘OM’ chanting was found to be a powerful stimulant to the vagus nerve. The act produces a tingling feeling around the ears down to the entire body. It is suspected that this sensation is transmitted through the auricular branch of the vagus nerve, creating limbic deactivation. This equals an increased rest activation.
You can perform ‘OM’ chanting by saying the word OM but holding the O for 5 minutes before moving on to the letter M for 10 seconds. Repeat for 10 mins and take a deep breath after.
When you gargle, the muscles at the back of the throat contract, activating the vagus nerve and stimulating the gastrointestinal tract.
This involves immersing your forehead, eyes, and up to 2/3 of both cheeks in cold water. This helps to stimulate the vagus nerve which elicits a decrease in heart rate and activates the immune system.
As described by Hitzmann, the jaw is connected to the two trigeminal and vagus nerve stimulation. Conditions like constant misalignment of the chin, dentures, unstable buttocks, and lack of adequate foot strength and balance may induce a poor vagal tone. Also, sometimes the tissues surrounding the vagal nerves in the head cause an imbalance in the network from the head to the gut. The 50-second facelift helps to stimulate the veins sitting outside the vagus nerve from the ears. This makes it possible to reduce the compression of these tissues at the bottom of the skull. It further enables the equilibrium to be restored and increases the vagal tone. (6)
There are lots of stress points in your rectal-anterior neck. Your vagus nerve goes behind the sternocleidomastoid muscles and in front of the scalenes. This is a great point to massage and stimulate.
The ear connects to the upper part of the vagus nerve and can be impacted by tension. Hence, massaging the ear region may help improve your vagal tone. You can do this by placing one finger above the ridge of your ear canal and making circular motions. Repeat on the other side, then pull the ear from the skull gently and move it up and down.
This stands for Basic, Half Salamander Exercise, and Full Salamander Exercise. They help reset your ventral vagus verve and increase your blood flow to your brain, gut, and other parts of the body.
The basic exercise can be performed by lying on your back, interweaving your fingers, and placing them behind your head. Then turn to the right without turning your head and remain there until you swallow or yawn spontaneously. Return to the center with your eyes straight before repeating on the other side.
The Half Salamander exercise is performed by looking to the right without turning your head. Then tilt your head towards the shoulder and hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Return to the initial position before repeating the same process towards the left.
The Full Salamander exercise involves you getting on all fours with your head facing down. Look to the left without turning your head. Then tilt your head to the left and let your spine twist with the head tilted to the left. Stay in this position for sixty seconds, then repeat on the right side. (7)
Just like your muscles, and other parts of your body, you need to exercise your vagal nerves to stay fit and carry out activities at peak health. Exercise increases the level of your brain’s growth. This, in turn, supports the mitochondria in the brain and assists in reversing cognitive decline.
Exercising your vagal nerves helps to improve your vagal tone. This enables the nervous system to manage the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other activities performed by the parasympathetic system. When this happens, you are relaxed, and develop higher chances of having positive emotions. Also, you are in a better position to manage stress and anxiety.
When you are stressed, the parasympathetic system fights to maintain balance by relaxing your body. The vagus nerve, which is a huge part of the PSS works to manage your stress levels before it goes out of control. There are some conditions where the stress becomes chronic, causing the vagus nerve to lose its ability to send you back into parasympathetic mode. This is known as vagal dysfunction and can give rise to inflammation.
Chronic stress can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, and some GI disorders. It could also lead to emotional exhaustion which affects mental health.
The stronger your vagal tone is, the quicker your body recovers from stress. The reverse is also the case when your vagal tone is poor.
We all feel anxious when we are about to perform an important task, or about to face an intense situation. It is normal to feel anxious just before an interview, or before addressing a crowd. Anxiety reminds you to be prepared for the task ahead. But sometimes, these anxious feelings can blow out of proportion and becomes long-termed. You could also experience a sudden surge in your anxiety level. This is referred to as an anxiety attack and may worsen as the causative event approaches. It is characterized by increased heart rate, shortness of breath, distress, and rapid breathing.
Now, when you are in this state, your vagus nerve is activated and sends signals to the muscles of the heart to slow down. Then your heartbeat rate is reduced. The more you stimulate your vagal nerves, the faster your body responds to slow your breath and heart rate and calm your nervous system. (8)
Generally, the activation of the vagus nerve helps to control your immune system and releases hormones and neurotransmitters like oxytocin and acetylcholine. This promotes feelings of relaxation, reductions in inflammation, reduced allergies, relief from tension headaches, and improvements in memory. (9)
Your vagus nerve is responsible for regulating your heart rate and breathing when you are tense. Exercising the vagus nerve helps to calm you in stressful situations.
Studies on patients with depression indicate that exercising the vagus nerve can decrease anxiety and boosts alertness.
Side effects of vagus nerve exercises are rare. But if you overstimulate your vagus nerve, there are chances of developing shortness of breath, hoarseness, neck pain, and cough.
6. Vagus Nerve Stimulation Breathing Exercises - ACE Fitness