The vagus nerve is your body’s longest nerve, and the biggest parasympathetic nerve in your body. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digest functions in your body.
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, and runs from your skull down both sides of the neck and chest to your abdomen and intestines.
The word vagus stems from a latin word for wanderer, which describes the nature of the vagus nerve well, since it wanders to most organs on its way.
When stressed we tend to go into fight or flight mode, which is the sympathetic nervous system’s job. Most people nowadays spend way too much time in that state, which causes all kinds of problems.
Stimulating the vagus nerve is one way of helping your body come back from the constant fight or flight and to calm down so that it can relax, heal and digest your food.
Most of the information in the vagus nerve runs from bottom up, ie from the organs, like the intestines, to your brain.That is why being in your body and doing physical activities will help in relaxation and feelings of safety.
Here are some tips on how to stimulate the vagus nerve and help you to relax and get to a state of healing:
● Because of the way the nerve runs at the back of your throat, humming, chanting, gargling and singing all create a vibration that stimulates the nerve
● Laughing (and socialising), for the same reason as above, but also, you can’t be really socially engaged without being in parasympathetic state
● Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. If you want it to be extra beneficial, breath out longer than you inhale.
● Cold immersion has been shown to increase vagus nerve tonus, so ending your morning shower with 30s to a few minutes of cold water immersion can be helpful. If that’s too much, you can just begin by immersing your face in cold water for short periods.
● Meditation and mindfulness
● Massage, especially foot massage
● Devices like Sensate that vibrate on your sternum.
● Osteopathy in the cranial field is a very efficient way of stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system and getting the body into a space where it can heal itself.
You don’t have to do them all, just choose one or a couple that work for you and see how you go. Some might work better for you, and some for others, so you might have to go through some trial and error.
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Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone [published correction appears in Psychol Sci. 2016 Jun;27(6):931]. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(7):1123-1132. doi:10.1177/0956797612470827