Unlocking the Power of the Vagus Nerve

Woman with hand on chest to stimulate vagus nerve

Ever had a gut feeling about something? Maybe you turned down a seemingly dream job because you had a hunch it wasn’t the right fit, or met a friend’s new boyfriend and just knew there was something “off” about him. While we attribute these intuitive feelings to the gut, they’re actually your vagus nerve talking. 

What (and where) exactly is the vagus nerve? 

The vagus (pronounced just like the city with all the casinos) is one of the largest nerves in your body; it starts in the brain stem, then goes down the throat before branching out into the gut, says clinical psychologist Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D., author of the upcoming book, The Post-Traumatic Growth Guide Book. It’s Mission Control for the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps you relax by lowering the heart rate and slowing breathing. Think of the PNS as the opposite of the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, which pumps out adrenaline when you’re in a stressful situation. 

The benefits of vagal nerve stimulation 

In 1921, Nobel Prize-winning German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating frogs’ vagus nerves caused a rush of acetylcholine, unlocking the idea that tapping into this chill-out nerve could be a fast way to dial down stress. Today, researchers are looking at how stimulating the vagus nerve could help humans. Ongoing research at the University of Texas, for example, is investigating whether zapping the vagus nerve with a mild electric current via an implanted stimulator could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And an implantable vagus nerve stimulator has been FDA-approved for depression. But you don’t need to get a gizmo to tap into the vagus, says Schwartz.  These exercises can stimulate the nerve to bring instant calm, no electricity required. 

4 simple ways to stimulate the vagus nerve 

Hum

The vagus nerve passes by the vocal cords and the inner ear on its way past the throat. So an easy way to stimulate it is with the vibrations you make when you hum a favorite tune.

Breathe deeply

Your breath is one of the fastest ways to influence your vagus. Take deep slow breaths (5-7 per minute), inhaling to a count of 5, holding briefly, then exhaling to a count of 10. For even more vagal stimulation,  try yogi ‘ujjayi’ breathing, where you constrict the back of the throat as you breathe in through the nostrils (it makes a sound like the ocean/Darth Vader.)

Hit the mat

Yoga in general can also help. Research from Boston University School of Medicine has shown that yoga improves stress-related disorders by improving the tone of the vagus nerve.

Engage the diving reflex

When you plunge underwater, nerves in the face relay a message via the vagus that creates a reflexive response. This so-called diving reflex regulates your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, and relaxes your body. You can replicate the effect by splashing your face with cold water, submerging your tongue in a glass of water, or holding water in your mouth.