Your Vagus Nerve, Ruler of Relaxation

 vagus nerve drawingWhat is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves and has fibers spanning from your brain stem to all your organs. Like a vagabond (where the name comes from), it wanders all over your body. It is the command center of your parasympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system controls “rest-and-digest” mode. This is in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls “fight-or-flight” responses when we are threatened or stressed. Your vagus nerve can be strengthened by stimulation, or weakened by lack of stimulation. You can have an under-active vagal response or an over-active response.

What does the vagus nerve do?

More specifically than just controlling your body’s relaxation response, the vagus nerve performs a number of important functions:

  • Connects Gut to Brain Emotionally
    • Your vagus nerve in your GI tract sends messages to your brain. That “gut feeling” is a very real phenomenon. This study shows that innate anxiety and learned fear in rats is regulated by signals from the gut.
  • Helps with Memory
    • Studies on both rats and humans have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve helps strengthen and consolidate memories. Promising news for those suffering cognitive decline and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s.
  • Reduces Inflammation
    • This is a big one! Incredible research by neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey demonstrated that nerve stimulation by electrical implants caused a drastic reduction in symptoms and even remission in rheumatoid arthritis patients. Similar studies have been done showing dramatic improvement in a number of inflammatory responses and diseases throughout the body.
  • Relaxation Response
    • The vagus nerve tells the body to calm down by releasing acetylcholine. This chemical prompts a number of other chemicals like oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin to be secreted. As a result: heart rate slows down, breathing calms, you feel more able to bond and connect with others, digestion is stimulated, and muscles relax.
    • Fun fact: mercury blocks acetylcholine. Mercury toxicity is an increasingly common problem due to mercury in our natural resources (water, air, food), and amalgam “silver” dental fillings. You can have your heavy metals levels checked through blood, urine, and hair tests, but the best indication often comes from your health history and symptoms.
  • Breathing and Heart Rate
    • The vagus nerve impacts these two very important functions directly. It controls your heart rate via electrical impulses and tells your lungs to breathe through acetylcholine secretion.

Signs your vagal nerve is weak

vagus nerve innervation graphic

Vagal nerve signals can become weak or the nerve can become irritated due to heavy metal toxicity, poor posture, Hiatal hernias, excess alcohol, stress, and brain trauma (a single concussion can cause weak vagal nerve tone). Signs of weak vagal nerve tone or misregulated firing of the vagal nerve can cause the following symptoms:

  • Lack of a gag reflex
  • Slow digestion– food sits in your stomach too long. This can cause acid reflux or GERD, bloating, or constipation.
  • Inability to relax
  • Heart palpitations
  • Insomnia

One of the best signs of strong vagal tone is when your heart rate increases slightly with inhalation, and slow slightly with exhalation.

How do you strengthen the vagal nerve?

About 60% of vagal nerve tone is determined by genetics, but there is a solid 40% that we can impact! Learn a number of ways to strengthen and stimulate the vagus nerve.

Fun fact: you CAN overstimulate the vagus nerve, and this is the most common cause of fainting. If you’ve ever fainted or felt light-headed after giving blood or getting a shot, you likely experienced “vasovagal syncope”. When you are under very high stress your vagus nerve becomes too stimulated and your heart rate drops quickly causing you to feel woozy or lose consciousness. It’s only temporary, and sitting or lying down usually resolves the feeling quickly. No damage has been done, so don’t worry!

Weak vagal nerve tone is linked to inflammation, depression, loneliness and heart attacks. We want to make sure our vagal nerves are strong! The following all stimulate the vagus nerve just enough to be very therapeutic, but not so much to cause fainting–as these are not highly stressful events.

      1. Gargling
        • Gargling helps stimulate the vagus nerve, although dainty gargling won’t do it. You need to gargle loudly and aggressively, to the point of almost gagging. Doing this daily will help increase the responsiveness of your vagal nerve to regulate relaxation, digestion, metabolism and more.
      2. Playing instruments
        • Fascinating research with didgeridoos showed that playing the instrument is effective in treating obstructive sleep disorders and sleep apnea through its strong stimulation of the vagus nerve. Further research shows that a number of inflammatory conditions also improved. Most wind instruments stimulate the vagus nerve.
      3. Yogic or Deep Breathing
        • Holding your breath for 6-8 counts stimulates the vagus nerve. Try this: Use your belly to breathe in for a count of 6, hold for 6-8, and exhale slowly through pursed lips for 6-8 counts to get your vagus firing. It’s important to be able to feel your diaphragm (that line between your stomach and ribs) moving up and down with each breath. It takes about 10 minutes of this breathing to feel the deeply relaxing effects of the vagal nerve stimulation.
      4. Meditation
        • Learning loving-kindness meditations improves vagal tone. This is due to its effect on positive emotions and positive connections. There more positive emotions and connections we have, the stronger our vagal tone. Download my free meditation handout. Or try this guided meditation.
      5. Acupuncturevagus nerve access via the ear
        • Acupuncture is amazing for helping to regulate vagal nerve response. At my office, I’ve developed a very effective technique using electroacupuncture on specific ear and body points that stimulate the vagus nerve to strengthen tone and regulate vagal response. Electroacupuncture uses a small machine that emits a painless electromagnetic pulse. The electromagnetic pulse feels like a slight buzzing or tapping and is not unpleasant. After 20-30 minutes of this, you will leave the office feeling incredibly relaxed. That vagal nerve stimulation will help regulate all the processes controlled by the vagal nerve, which by now you know is a big deal! Can you spot the acupuncture points in the photo above?
        • Bioelectronics is an emerging field of medicine in which small devices are implanted to stimulate different nervous system pathways. This successfully treats a range of diseases and inflammatory symptoms. This is very exciting and very validating of acupuncture–which uses needles and sometimes electricity to stimulate the nervous system at different points to treat a range of disease and inflammatory symptoms. If you want to be on the cutting edge of scientific research, and avoid surgery to implant a metal device– try the less invasive way, acupuncture.

         

        For more ways to stimulate vagal nerve function, download my free PDF guide

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        The contents of this site, including text, graphics, images, and other material are for informational purposes only. Nothing contained in this site is or should be considered or used as a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please schedule an appointment for personalized health advice.

        Sources

2018-07-20T21:38:27+00:00

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About the Author:

Caitlin Gordon, M.S., L.Ac., C.M.F.P., is a functional medicine clinician, board-certified acupuncturist, and transformative health coach based in Boulder, Colorado. Owner of Amaluna Acupuncture & Wellness, Caitlin treats patients online and in-person. She specializes in treating stress, anxiety, and depression without pharmaceuticals.

9 Comments

  1. […] *There is one important omission, which is an ear point I use that targets the Vagus nerve. This corresponds closely to the “liver” point in the ear. I didn’t include it, because I use a different technique than standard acupuncture. But, read more about how the vagus nerve treat anxiety! […]

  2. Marisa Andersen July 20, 2017 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    Hello! What auricular point to do hook up the e-stim to for this tx? I am an acupuncturist and I feel this would greatly benefit a could patients of mine! You hook it up bilaterally? micro or mili current? Thanks so much!

    • Caitlin Gordon July 20, 2017 at 6:27 pm - Reply

      Hi Marisa, I used Lung 1/Ht area in the center of the main fossa. I do bilateral, milicurrent.

  3. Colleen December 8, 2017 at 12:07 am - Reply

    My daughter is inconstant fight or flight. Dysautonomia. She is in sympathetic overdrive. How would you bring in the parasympathetic to give her body relief?

    • Caitlin Gordon December 8, 2017 at 5:29 pm - Reply

      Hi Colleen,
      I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. That must be so hard for both of you. I highly recommend acupuncture and using the other techniques included in the free download to strengthen vagal tone.

  4. Rick Kawulia June 6, 2018 at 7:41 am - Reply

    Caitlan,
    Thanks, You hit the nail on the head for me. All these tips make sense. I have atrial vibrilation and as a result had a stroke, but I dodged a bullet a was thrombosis in time. Of course the docs start providing pills. As I am a solo fibrillation i.e. heart beat is 60, no high cholesterol, no plaque, no high blood pressure, no heart defects of any kind. I am a very fit 61 year old. But stressed …. and noticed a correlation to too much drinking alcohol and it brings it on. Secondly I told my cardiologist that is not from the heart but from the guts. I can feel the vagus nerve kick in when I am about to fibrillate. So I am almost full vegan. About to start fasting regularly again. Back to meditation. I was advised by my Guru to stop the very active type and do more Yoga Nidra. Also instinctively when first started vibrations I did pranayama. Alternate nostril breathing in one nostril to count of two and out the other to count of 8 (but can start with 4 and build up). My question is what acupuncture points do you use for Vegas nerve. Sorry I would list but based in Australia. Cheers, Rick

    • Caitlin Gordon June 6, 2018 at 8:01 am - Reply

      Hi Rick,
      I’m glad you found this helpful. Your best bet is to schedule with an acupuncturist locally! I must say that vegans are often the patients I see in the worst shape in my clinic. Be sure you’re doing it intelligently and eating enough protein and not relying on soy products. Best luck!

  5. Gus June 14, 2018 at 1:52 am - Reply

    Hi,

    I’ve suffered from vagal nerve issues for quite a while, I’ve found that stimulating it makes my symptoms worse, so is there any way to heal the nerve without stimulating it? I would really appreciate your opinion because there isn’t anyone i can ask about this and you seem to know a lot about this.

    • Caitlin Gordon June 14, 2018 at 10:32 am - Reply

      Hi Gus, stimulation can cause a strong vasovagal response, but there are ways to regulate the autonomic nervous system with acupuncture that would likely help. Mediation is very helpful for this as well.

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