Updated: Feb 9, 2022
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body, and it connects the brain to many essential organs - in particular the gut, heart, and lungs. It plays an important role in regulating digestion and works to activate the peripheral nervous system (PNS) - you might remember this being called the “rest and digest” system in high school biology.
Essentially, the vagus nerve acts to facilitate communication between the brain and the rest of the body and calms the body’s natural response to stress when activated.
We’ve learned that actively stimulating the vagus nerve can improve the way our body responds to stress. It can be done proactively (to build resistance to stress), and reactively (in any moment where you’re feeling stress or anxiety).
Why is it so important to regulate our body’s stress response?
Our bodies are designed to manage stress, but today’s stressors look quite different than they did for our ancestors. An acute physiological response to stress leads to an elevated heart rate and respiratory rate, elevated blood pressure, and inhibited digestion. The stress hormone cortisol spikes in order to release blood sugars into the bloodstream (instant energy in case we have to run for our lives), and cortisol is also useful in the inflammatory process of tissue repair (if we find ourselves injured). This chain of events, when functioning properly, is a short-lived evolutionary trait intended to protect our bodies from immediate stressors. It’s great in the face of danger, but overkill in the face of a bill you forgot to pay or a difficult argument with a loved one.
If this response is activated too often, and if the process doesn’t shut down quickly, it can lead to chronic stress.
Chronic stress can trigger hormonal imbalances, inflammation, and digestive issues, often leading to chronic disease. If left unchecked, the stress can trigger an immune response, releasing cytokines to attack anything deemed as a threat in the body. Over time, this can train your immune response not to shut off, leading to chronic inflammation.
Symptoms of chronic stress can include:
High BP, heart disease
Long term, this can lead to depression/anxiety, cardiovascular disease, diabetes/metabolic disorders, fatigue, infertility, cognitive issues, and impaired immune function.
Vagus nerve stimulation can be used to reduce your body’s response in the middle of a stressful moment. Over time, regular stimulation of the vagus nerve can increase your vagal tone, essentially training the body to handle stress more effectively - just like training your muscles. By telling your brain that everything is, in fact, okay, you can keep your body running smoothly, and ease your mind as well.
What does vagus nerve stimulation look like? You may already be doing things to stimulate your vagus nerve and ease stress without realizing it!
Physical exercises - intended to stimulate your vocal cords
Gargling (with water twice daily, 30-60 seconds)
“Om”-ing (sitting somewhere quiet, chanting a long “om,” just like with yoga or meditation)
Physiological exercises - intended to elicit emotional responses
Gratitude journaling - daily weekly, or as often as you like
Deep breathing - we love box breathing, but even just deep, slow breaths can help!
Meditation, yoga, or anything intended to help you calm and quiet your mind
Enjoying things you find beautiful - walk through the woods or a floral garden, sitting and enjoying a sunset, playing with your children or pets, anything you truly enjoy!
Cold exposure - begin or end your shower with 30 seconds of cold water, and increase that time in cold water as tolerated. If you can stomach the thought of a cold shower, begin by submerging your face in ice-cold water briefly.
If you find yourself feeling frequently stressed or anxious, make an effort to employ some of these techniques in your daily routine. No need to let a meeting that should’ve been an email affect your health - you have the power to train your body to handle daily stressors without feeling like you need a major life change. Start small, and you’ll be amazed at how far you can go!