These days it is nearly impossible to avoid stress. Many are looking for ways to manage their stress, yet you may find greater benefit if you increase your stress resistance with your vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve, you ask? The vagus nerve forms a bi-directional “super highway” between your brain and the majority of your internal organs. Vagus means “wandering” in Latin, an appropriate name for the longest nerve in the body that meanders around your chest and abdomen.
The Role of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve connects the brainstem to the body. It allows the brain to monitor and receive information about many of the body’s functions. Some of these roles include:
- Supplying sensory information for throat, ears, heart, lung and digestive tract.
- Providing movement and reflexes responsible for swallowing, sneezing and speech.
- Supporting parasympathetic functions related to digestion, respiration and heart rate.
Stress and an unregulated nervous system reduce immune function, leaving you more susceptible to disease and infection. The chronic stimulation of stress on your immune system causes it to become suppressed overall and thus less able to ward off the things that work against you.
Does Vagal Health Affect Overall Wellness?
When the vagus nerve is not firing well, we say there is “low vagal tone.” Low vagal tone is associated with many issues like IBS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, anxiety, panic attacks, poor heart rate variability, and even mental health.
Increasing your vagal tone is like clearing the traffic jam from the super highway to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows messages to pass more efficiently so that your body can relax faster after stressful situations.
The more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve.
Ways to Tone the Vagus Nerve
- Deep breathing – slowly inhale as much as you can through your nose, expanding your diaphragm. Hold your breath for 5 seconds, then exhale slowly for 7 seconds through pursed lips. Repeat 10 times.
- Humming and gargling – singing, humming and gargling are all great ways to stimulate the part of the vagus nerve that is connected to your vocal cords and throat muscles.
- Cold exposure – try finishing your shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water running over the back of your neck. Take deep breaths as it does. You can start with brief exposure and work up gradually.
- Gag reflex – the lack of gag reflex is a sign of low vagal tone. I recommend starting with gargling daily. Then you can use a tongue scraper or the end of your toothbrush to stimulate the back of your tongue or throat.
- Tickling the face or neck/scalp massage – stimulating these areas cause relaxation and increase vagal tone.
If you struggle with relaxing when faced with life’s daily struggles, you need to recruit the assistance of your vagus nerve. I recommend some of these exercises be incorporated into your daily routine. As your vagal tone improves, you will find you can handle stress better and relax faster. This resilience will reduce inflammation and improve your health.