Vagus Nerve: Function and How to Stimulate It Naturally (Evidence Based)

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Vagus Nerve: Function and How to Stimulate It Naturally (Research Based)
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The vagus nerve runs from your brain through your neck and chest to your abdomen. The function of the vagus nerve is to control your mood, heart rate, digestion, and immune response. Stimulating your vagus nerve can help to regulate many functions in your body.

Vagus nerve stimulation has been linked to treating epilepsy, improving digestive conditions, reducing inflammation, and managing anxiety disorders.

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It is possible to stimulate the vagus nerve through massage, exercising, singing, intermittent fasting, and taking omega-3 supplements.

The traditional way of stimulating the vagus nerve is by inserting a device in your chest that sends electrical signals to the nerve. However, there are natural ways you can improve vagus nerve function with some simple stimulation techniques.

In this article, you will learn about how your vagus nerve functions and how it is linked to good overall health. You will also find out how to stimulate the vagus nerve at home.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

You have one vagus nerve on each side of your body that travels all the way from your brain to your gut. Doctors say that this is the longest of the cranial nerves in your body. (1)

The name “vagus nerve” comes from the Latin word for wandering. This is a fitting name because this cranial nerve has many connections and branches through the body. (2)

The function of the vagus nerve is also referred to as vagal tone. The vagal tone can be measured by analyzing the heart rate variability. (3)

Some studies indicate that it is possible to stimulate the vagal nerve fibers through breathing. This is why deep breathing exercises are good for reducing heart rate and helping to relax better. Researchers have discovered that slow-paced breathing stimulates vagal tone and helps to improve personal health. (4)

Vagus Nerve Function

The vagus nerve has an extensive function in the body and is located throughout your upper body. The long cranial nerve that is the vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut.

The vagus nerve also helps the heart and your internal organs to function properly. Poor vagal nerve function is often associated with digestive disorders, poor sleep health, fatigue, and anxiety. (5)

Let’s look in more detail at how the vagus nerve functions and how vagal tone can affect your health.

Vagus nerve function in the brain

Your vagal nerve plays an important role in how your brain functions.

Researchers have found that the vagus nerve is the main connection between the brain and gastrointestinal tract and sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain. Studies show that the vagus nerve function is also connected with psychiatric conditions. (6)

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that managing epilepsy is one of the reasons why there are devices to stimulate the vagal nerve. The stimulating effect on the vagus nerve sends signals to the brain and can reduce the frequency of seizures. (7)

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Vagus nerve function and your mood

Because your vagal tone is closely connected to your brain function, it is not surprising that your vagus nerve affects your mood.

The journal Frontiers in Neuroscience reported in 2018 that the poor function of the vagus nerve can lead to mood and anxiety disorders. In some cases, it is possible to stimulate the vagus nerve by improving your gut health. The increase in vagal tone can also help regulate stress and alleviate anxious feelings. (6)

Vagus nerve affects your gut health

Stress and anxiety often cause digestive upset because of the way the vagus nerve connects the brain and gut.

Researchers call the function of the vagus nerve the “gut-brain axis.” Stress inhibits the vagus nerve function and affects your digestive health. This vagal dysfunction can lead to various digestive disorders caused by inflammation and poor gut microbiota. (7)

In some cases, stimulating the vagus nerve in the gut using probiotics could be a novel way to improve vagal tone. This can help to treat symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

On the other hand, stimulating the vagus nerve function in the brain through relaxation techniques, deep breathing, or mediation can have a positive effect on your gut’s health. (7)

Other studies have shown that vagus stimulation helps to make sure there is enough stomach acid for digestion. Vagus nerve function also affects levels of intrinsic factor (a type of protein known as IF) in your gut which is needed to prevent a vitamin B12 deficiency. (8)

Vagus nerve function and appetite

The effect of vagus nerve function on your digestive system can also control your appetite.

The journal Gastroenterology reports that vagus activity plays a role in regulating your appetite. Researchers have found that one of the vagus nerve damage symptoms is obesity. (9)

Other studies point to the fact that a properly functioning vagus nerve also increases feelings of satiety. Your vagal tone helps to transport signals to your brain making you feel fuller and may help prevent you from overeating.

However, researchers explain that the vagus nerve function is extremely complex and complicated, and there is little evidence to suggest that vagus nerve stimulation helps to treat obesity or lower body weight. (9)

Vagus nerve function and your internal organs

Your left and right vagus nerves are connected to most of your internal organs and help them function properly.

For example, the Cardiology Journal reports on a study showing that an increase in vagus activity can help reduce heart failure. Doctors found that using a device to stimulate the vagus nerve increased nitric oxygen levels and lowered inflammation. Both of these are important in boosting heart health. (10)

Research also shows that vagal nerve activity affects bladder function. (11)

Healthy vagal nerve function is also necessary for the kidneys to work properly and filter toxins. Experiments have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve helps to improve blood flow through the kidneys. (12)

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Vagus nerve function affects inflammation

An important reason to make sure that you have good vagal tone is to reduce inflammation in your body.

Although short-term inflammation is necessary to treat infections and help the body heal itself, long-term inflammation can be detrimental to your health. Chronic inflammation has been linked to diseases such as heart disease, allergies, diabetes, and cancer. (13)

Studies into the way the vagus nerve functions have shown that it helps lower inflammatory responses. Scientists theorize that enhancing the vagus nerve function could help manage inflammation-related diseases. Trials have shown that increased vagus nerve activity could help manage complications associated with obesity, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, and poor cardiovascular health. (14)

Vagus Nerve Stimulation: How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally

What is vagus nerve stimulation and how can improving vagal tone help regulate many body functions?

Scientists say that stimulation of the vagal nerve can refer to any process to increase vagal activity. There are various methods of stimulating the vagus nerve to help boost your health. For example, breathing exercises, aerobic exercising, massage, and yoga have all shown to help improve vagal tone. (15)

Some of the benefits of stimulating your vagus nerve include lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, enjoying better sleep, reducing anxiety, and boosting brain health. (16, 17)

Let’s look in more detail at scientific evidence on the various ways you can stimulate the vagus nerve.

Cold Stimulates the Vagus Nerve

Splashing cold water on your face or putting a cold damp washcloth on the back of your neck can cause vagus nerve stimulation.

Studies have shown that being exposed to cold temperatures increases vagus activity. Acute exposure to the cold releases certain neurotransmitters in the gastrointestinal system that affect brain health. (18)

Other studies have shown that an increase in vagus nerve activity caused by acclimatization to the cold boosts parasympathetic activity. This is where heart rate slows down and muscles in the gastrointestinal tract relax, sometimes referred to as the “rest-and-digest” effect. (19)

Hum or Sing to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Singing in the shower, singing in a choir, or just humming along to your favorite song can promote good health through vagus nerve stimulation.

One study involving adult singers found that singing in a group affects heart rate variability. Researchers found that singing requires guided breathing which can influence vagal tone. This type of even breathing helps to improve the vagal response and improves well-being. (20)

Conscious Breathing Benefits Vagus Nerve Function

Deep breathing exercises where you consciously control air intake and output can help relax and stimulate the vagal response.

The journal Frontiers in Psychology reported that conscious breathing causes vagus nerve stimulation. Inhaling deeply and then exhaling slowly helps to slow down the heart rate and lower blood pressure. (21)

One study found that doing breathing exercises for 15 minutes a day for 2 weeks had a significant effect on the amount of air people with chronic heart failure could exhale. (22)

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Other studies show that breathing exercises positively affect vagal tone and can help to improve emotional and psychological health. (21)

Yoga Stimulation for the Vagus Nerve

Many yoga exercises involve conscious, deliberate breathing and can help to improve vagal tone.

A study involving healthy adults found that slow breathing and contracting the throat muscles help to improve vagal responses. The yoga techniques helped to lower blood pressure and alleviate anxiety. (22)

Another way that yoga exercises help to stimulate the vagus nerve is using “OM” chanting. The vibration that the chanting or humming creates increases vagus activity and helps relax. (23)

To find more, you can check out my article on the many health problems you can fix using some simple yoga poses, as well as this yoga for complete beginners.

Mild Exercising for Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Regular physical activity is good for your cardiovascular health and to help boost vagal action.

One of the benefits that exercising has on vagus nerve stimulation is to your digestive health. Researchers have discovered that mild exercising promotes healthy vagal tone. This helps to stimulate the gastric muscles leading to better digestion. Researchers have found that stimulating the “gut-brain axis” helps the stomach process food better. (24)

You can learn about other natural ways to improve your digestive health if you have constipation or other digestion issues.

Probiotics Can Affect the Vagus Nerve and Improve Gut Function

You can help to resolve many of the symptoms of vagal dysfunction by taking probiotics to improve your gut’s microbiota.

There are many studies showing that probiotics can help to boost your digestive health. Part of the reason why probiotics are good for your digestion is that they stimulate your vagus nerve.

One study found that taking Lactobacillus rhamnosus probiotics could help to improve your gastrointestinal health. Because your gut’s health also affects your mood and brain function via the vagus nerve, probiotics can also help to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. (25)

Find out about the many reasons to take probiotics regularly and which type of probiotics helps restore gut flora after taking antibiotics.

Omega-3 Affects Heart Function and the Vagus Nerve

Taking fish oil supplements can help to increase vagal activity and have a positive effect on your cardiovascular health.

There are plenty of studies showing how omega-3 capsules can help to keep your heart healthy, reduce inflammation, and positively affect your mood.

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Can taking omega-3 supplements stimulate your vagus nerve? One study involving men found that taking omega-3 fatty acids helped to stimulate the vagal nerve. Over a 4-month period, the men had a lower heart rate and better recovery after exercise when regularly taking omega-3 supplements. (26)

Other studies have shown that taking omega-3 regularly also increases heart rate variability and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. (27)

Massage to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

One of the benefits of having a massage to help you relax is that it helps to increase vagal activity in your body.

Devices designed to stimulate the vagus nerve are sometimes used to control epilepsy seizures. However, massaging the carotid sinus on the sides of your neck can have a similar effect.

The Journal of Clinical Neuroscience reported that massaging the carotid sinus can help to suppress seizures as it stimulates the vagus nerve. Other doctors say that a carotid sinus massage helps to increase vagal tone. (28, 29)

The journal American Family Physician reports that a carotid sinus massage is usually carried out by a qualified medical professional. Stimulating the vagus nerve in such a way can help to reduce a rapid heartbeat and lower blood pressure quickly. (30)

Find out about the best essential oils to use in a relaxing massage to help bring your stress levels down.

Foot Reflexology to Regulate Vagus Nerve Function

Massaging your feet benefits your general well-being because it is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve.

One small study found that foot reflexology increases vagal tone and has many benefits for your cardiovascular system. Massaging specific areas of the foot helped to lower blood pressure naturally and benefit people with coronary heart disease. (31)

If you are interested in reflexology, please read my article on how to do reflexology at home to cure many ailments.

Intermittent Fasting to Improve Vagus Nerve Function

One way to stimulate your vagus nerve naturally and benefit your heart rate variability is to fast intermittently.

Intermittent fasting is sometimes called the 5:2 diet. This involves eating normally for 5 days and then on 2 non-consecutive days having a partial fast. Calorie intake for the fasting days should be 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men.

Studies have shown that intermittent fasting is an effective way to lose weight and maintain weight loss. The effects of fasting on the vagus nerve affect the hunger hormone ghrelin. (32)

Other studies have shown that fasting is a way to stimulate the function of the vagus nerve. (33)

If you want to lose weight quickly, learn about the benefits of intermittent fasting to help shed pounds of body fat.

Other Methods to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve and Affect its Function

There are other ways to improve vagal tone for better health and well-being:

Laughing stimulates the vagus nerve

There is some scientific backing to the saying that laughter is the best medicine. The journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a study on the effects of yoga laughing on heart rate variability. Controlled laughter sessions helped to reduce anxiety and boost mood. (34)

Serotonin supplements affect vagus nerve function

Taking supplements such as 5-HTP can boost serotonin levels in the brain and increase vagal activity. Studies have shown that 5-HTP supplements help to stimulate the vagus nerve. This can also assist in lowering depression, reducing hypertension, and boosting your mood. (35)

Find out what other natural ingredients help to boost levels of serotonin.

Acupuncture to regulate the vagus nerve

One of the reasons why acupuncture is good for your general health and well-being is that it stimulates the vagal nerve. Studies have shown that acupuncture regulates vagal activity and helps to improve your gastrointestinal health, respiratory system, and heart health. The effect of acupuncture in improving vagal tone can also protect against neurodegenerative diseases. (36)

Muscle relaxation to manage anxiety and increase vagal tone

One way to improve vagus nerve function is to perform progressive muscle relaxation.

One study involving people under stress found that muscle relaxation helped to lower feelings of stress and anxiety. Relaxation therapy increases vagal activity and provides a number of health benefits. The increase in vagal tone also helped to lower blood pressure, decrease cholesterol, and lower resting heart rate. (37)

To perform progressive muscle relaxation to stimulate your vagus nerve, start by tensing the muscles in your feet and holding for 10 seconds, then releasing them. Repeat this for each muscle group as you work your way up your body. Do this for 20 minutes each day to benefit from increased vagus nerve stimulation.

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