Lately, a lot of people are wondering how to stay calm and feel good when there is so much uncertainty, fear and chaos in the world right now. It is challenging and I’m here today to explain how strengthening our vagus nerve helps us move more easily from feeling anxious to relaxed.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It runs from your brain down into the lowest part of your intestines and touches most major organs along the way, including your heart, lungs and digestive system.
The vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system that operates without you even thinking about it.
Low vagal tone indicates stress and is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression, and inflammation.
Good vagus nerve function is instrumental in keeping us calm and centered. It activates the “relaxation response” of the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn, decreases anxiety, stress, and inflammation.
I became interested in the vagus nerve when I heard microbiologist Kran Krishnan explain how important it is for moving food and waste through your digestive system,(peristalsis) He said a toned vagus nerve relieves constipation, something I’ve been dealing with my whole life. But that is only a small part of what your vagus nerve does.
Research shows that a strong vagal tone (flowing vagus nerve activity) makes your body better at digestion and regulating blood glucose levels allowing your body to get the right nutrients into your cells.
A well-functioning vagus nerve sends signals to the immune system to shut down inflammation.
Strengthening your vagal tone can help relieve brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
The vagus nerve is also involved in swallowing and producing sound vibrations including speech.
How Good Vagal Tone Helps Keep You Calm
You’ve probably heard about the Gut-Brain connection but that’s only half the story. A “connection” implies a response, so there is also a “Brain-Gut connection”. There is conversation occurring between the intestinal microbiome and the brain happening through the vagus nerve.
It’s an actual conversation. The communications between the intestinal microbiome and the brain and the brain back to the intestinal microbiota are “bi- directional”. The vagus nerve sends signals in both directions. 80% flows from the body to the brain and 20% goes from the brain to the body.
When you have low vagal tone it’s like the brain is putting its fingers in its ears saying really loud “la, la, la I can’t hear you” and the communication breaks down.
Since your gut produces the majority of the serotonin in your body and the vagus nerve transmits the mood-boosting serotonin to your brain, when the vagus nerve isn’t working well the serotonin can’t get to your brain and you feel anxious, afraid or even depressed.
Another way the vegus nerve keeps you calm is every time you EXHALE, your vagus nerve squirts “vagusstoff” or “vagus substance” onto your heart. Vagusstoff acts as a tranquilizer-like substance to slow down beat-to-beat intervals and improves heart rate variability (HRV).
People with higher HRV can move more easily from anxiety to relaxed and can recover more easily from stress.
Strengthening Your Vagal Tone
You can support your vagus nerve to help you stay calm even though we are living in stressful times. Stimulating the vagus nerve reduces the cortisol-producing stress response of fight-or-flight.
Here are a few practical ways to strengthen your vagal tone and improve the Gut-Brain connection and communication.
Deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, resets the vagus nerve. Extending the length of the exhale does even more to counterbalance any over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.
This type of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve so all of the parts of your body it regulates are instantly calmed.
The vagus nerve is listening to the way we breathe, and it sends the brain and the heart whatever message our breath indicates.
How to Do Belly Breathing
- Stand, sit or lie down comfortably with your shoulders, head and neck relaxed. If you’re sitting or lying down have your knees bent.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
- Breath in for a count of 6. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. It should feel like your stomach is filling up like a ball. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4.
- Breathe out for a count of 8. (longer than the in-breath). Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as the ball deflates as you exhale through pursed lips. Keep the hand on your upper chest as still as possible.
- Hold the out breath for a count of 4.
Note: If you find it hard to do the belly breathing for 6 counts do less. Breathe in for 4, hold for 2, breath out for 6, hold for 2. If the count is too easy, then extend it, breath in for 8, hold for 6, breath out for 10, hold for 6. Be sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.
Start with 4 rounds and work up to 10.
Ujjayi breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, as you breath in and out through the back of your throat. This is the breath practice commonly used in hatha and vinyasa yoga. Ujjayi means victorious; each inhale and exhale is a celebration of life. It is sometimes called the “oceanic breath” because, if you listen closely, each cycle sounds like the waves coming in and out at the shore.
How to do Ujjayi Breathing:
- Breath in and exhale out of your mouth as if you are fogging up a mirror.
- Now as you inhale through your nose, create a slight constriction at the back of your throat to generate a soft wheezing sound.
- Keep your mouth closed and exhale out of your nose. As you exhale through your nose, keep the constriction at the back of your throat to maintain the wheezing sound as you push the air out.
- You will notice the sound of your breath is louder which often sounds like the waves of the ocean.
- At the end of your exhale, draw your navel into your abdomen to push out any remnants of air.
- Start with an even count for your inhale and exhale. For even more vagal toning and deeper relaxation, gradually increase the length of your exhale as compared to the inhale. For example, you might start out with a 4-count on the inhale and exhale to a 6 or 8 count. This has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.
- If this is a newer practice for you, try the first several rounds with your mouth open. When you exhale it will be like you’re fogging up a window or making a “Darth Vader” sound.
I recommend 12 breaths, but you can continue for as long as you like.
Chanting is my favorite way to tone my vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Chanting has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone.
Chanting gives you the added benefits of meditation which also strengthens your vagus nerve..
Practice: Chant the mantra in a steady rhythm with your eyes closed for 5-15 minutes. Keep your attention on your voice and breath as you chant. If your mind wanders gently bring it back to your voice chanting the mantra.
One of my favorite chants: Aad Nuray Nameh
Aad Guray Nameh is a very powerful mantra used to gain clarity, and to receive guidance from one’s highest Self. This mantra creates a field of energy around you, attracting abundance and helping you live with a feeling of well-being.
Through chanting our feet can walk in happiness, and our mind can let go knowing all is well and we are supported by the Universe. Things are always working out for us.
Singing & Humming
Singing is much like chanting without the meditation. Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, singing or humming mechanically stimulates it.
Choose a song to sing. Make it happy and fun. Belt it out loudly, with all the feeling you can muster, 3-5 minutes, once or twice a day. Do it in the shower or while driving in your car.
I like the songs Whistle A Happy Tune, Do Ray Me. Choose something positive as it may get stuck in your head for a while.
Meditation promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others which improves the vagal tone. A 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kik found that increasing positive emotions led to increased social closeness, and an improvement in vagal tone. A Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) study identified how meditation improves levels of brain connectivity and lowered inflammation and stress indicating healthy vagal tone.
Exposing your body briefly to cold conditions, such taking a cold shower or ending your shower with cold water increases stimulation of the vagus nerve. While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, while parasympathetic activity increases. If you’re like me and find cold showers too severe, splashing your face 10 times with cold water will be beneficial.
This method has been researched for over 30 years via the Carrick Institute; it’s a tried-and-true method. Like singing loudly in the car or shower this one is easy to do in the shower or at the bathroom sink. A strong and enthusiastic gargling episode sends signals directly to the vagus nerve via the gargle muscles with a message, albeit garbled, that is interpreted as a wake-up call of re-engagement of the brain/nerve function. Some people will experience tearing of the eyes during this process, which is nothing to worry about.
How to do it. Take a full glass of pure water and gargle your way through each sip. It’s fine to swallow the water or spit it out. Gargle with enthusiasm and push your limits. This technique only works when you gargle longer than you are used to.
Balancing The Gut Microbiome
The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. Good gut bacteria is achieved with a diet of whole foods from the earth, mostly plants. Read more about maintaining a healthy microbiome in my articles:
In conclusion: Low vagal tone indicates stress and is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression, and inflammation. Optimal vagal tone is illustrated by one’s ability to manage stress, to soothe yourself and return to a state of well-being. When you have good vagal tone, you’re more resilient. Deepak Chopra says “The more flexible you are, the more adaptable you are. You must stimulate the vagus nerve to do this.” which is why I hope this article inspires to do a few easy processes to strengthen and tone your vagus nerve.