How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve for Better Health
Vagus nerve stimulation has recently become a hot topic in the health and wellness industry.
People are beginning to pay more and more attention to this vital cranial nerve and its importance for both physical and mental health. Making sure that this nerve is functioning optimally can help you to increase resistance to stress, manage health conditions, and be vibrant and ready to take on life’s challenges.
In this article, we’ll look at what the vagus nerve is, why it’s important for your health, and how to activate it yourself to boost your health and well-being.
What is the vagus nerve and why is it important?
There are 12 cranial nerves that connect the brain to other areas of the body, sending information back and forth. They are a part of the autonomic nervous system, which means they control involuntary body functions.1
The 10th cranial nerve is called the vagus nerve. It is the longest cranial nerve (sometimes referred to as the “wandering nerve”) that runs from the brain all the way to the gut. It is responsible for both sensory and motor functions in the body.2 3
The vagus nerve connects to all your internal organs, making it vital for everything from controlling heart rate to detoxification to digestion.3
The vagus nerve is particularly important because it helps you to respond to stress in a healthy way.3 4 It is a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system’s response to stress.
When the vagus nerve is active, the brain is sending messages to the body that it is time to relax. When it isn’t active as it should be, you can be in a heightened state that can degrade your physical, mental, and emotional health over time.5
When your vagus nerve activity is low, it is referred to as having low vagal tone.
What is low vagal tone?
Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Vagal tone can be measured by tracking biological functions like heart rate, breathing rate, and heart rate variability.6
When your vagal tone is low, this means that your vagus nerve is not functioning at optimal capacity. As a result, your parasympathetic nervous system isn’t activated the way it should be. And when this happens, your body can’t respond to stress properly and won’t relax as well after stress.2 7
When you have low vagal tone, you may experience symptoms of anxiety and stress such as low mood, racing heart rate, sweaty palms, upset stomach, shakiness, and more.8 You might also experience loss of voice, trouble drinking liquids, abdominal discomfort, abnormal blood pressure, and diarrhea or constipation.3
Low vagal tone is associated with stress, emotional reactivity, and even mental health diagnoses. For example, teens who have low vagal tone are more likely to develop mental health conditions like anxiety and depression after being exposed to stressors.4
If you want to increase your body’s adaptability to stress and optimize both your health and your well-being for the long run, then you’ll want to learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve to increase vagal tone.3 Raising your vagal tone can reduce symptoms of stress and help you respond better to the stressors in your life.9
The benefits of vagus nerve stimulation to increase vagal tone
Vagus nerve stimulation refers to any technique that stimulates vagus nerve activity.10 Stimulating your vagus nerve increases your vagal tone. As a result, you can increase your physical, mental, and emotional state and reduce the effects of stress.9 11 You can also reap other benefits like reducing inflammation, improving gut health, lowering pain, and more.2 3 5 6 14
Learning how to stimulate the vagus nerve can even help you to manage specific health conditions. For example, vagal nerve stimulation has been shown to have positive benefits for conditions such as:
- Treatment-resistant depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Arthritis1 2 5 6 11 14
For some of these conditions, such as epilepsy and depression, there are FDA-approved devices that are actually implanted into the body to stimulate the vagus nerve.2 This is a treatment option that is effective for patients who require it to manage their condition, but it requires surgery and has many risks.
For the general population, vagal nerve stimulation can be much simpler. There are several non-invasive, all-natural techniques you can use from the comfort of your own home to increase vagal tone and get the health benefits you are looking for.
How to stimulate the vagus nerve with 12 natural strategies
If you want to try stimulating your vagus nerve naturally, then consider these easy techniques that you can work into your day-to-day routine.
1. Cold exposure
Exposing your body to cold temperatures is an easy way to increase your vagal tone. This can be done simply with cold water, such as with ice baths, cold showers, a plunge into a natural body of water, or even a cold splash of water to the face. You could also try applying ice packs to the body. Cold exposure to the face and neck area is particularly effective for increasing vagal tone.9 11
2. Deep breathing
Slow, deep breathing is another great way to increase vagus nerve activity, because specific breathing patterns can actually affect your internal biology and positively impact your vagus nerve.12 Consider various breathing techniques like diaphragmatic breathing or paced breathing to increase vagal tone. For example, try pacing yourself to 6 slow breaths per minute as an easy tool.6
3. Meditation and mindfulness
Mindfulness practices such as meditation are another way to relax, reduce your stress, and increase your vagal tone. These practices help to reduce “fight or flight” activity, promote “rest and digest,” and boost positive emotions as well.6
4. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain health. The more omega 3s you eat in your diet, the better your heart rate and heart rate variability will typically be. These are both measures of vagal tone, suggesting that omega 3s can support optimal vagus nerve activity.13 Omega 3s can be found in foods like fatty fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Did you know that gut and brain health are tightly linked? Researchers believe that one way the gut influences brain activity is through stimulating the vagus nerve. The bacteria in your gut – called probiotics – are particularly important for this process and can have beneficial effects on your mood and anxiety levels, for example.2
Do you love getting a massage to relax and de-stress? The great news is that aside from being a pleasurable treat, massages also stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. Neck and head massages and even self-massages have been shown to increase heart rate variability, for example.14
Moving your body and getting in plenty of physical activity is crucial for your health in so many ways—including increasing vagal tone.15 Consider effective options for vagus nerve stimulation like aerobics, stretching, yoga, resistance training, and more.
8. Laughing and enjoying social interactions
Positive social interactions that involve laughter and connection can also increase your vagal tone.16 Make sure to regularly make time for socializing, and don’t shy away from a deep belly laugh. Why not enjoy yourself and give your health a boost at the same time?
9. Listening to music
You probably already enjoy listening to music. But did you know that listening to music can have positive effects on your vagal tone? Listening to Mozart, in particular, has impressive effects.6 So turn on some tunes and give music therapy a try!
Biofeedback is a technique that trains you to have some control over various functions in your body, such as your heart rate and blood pressure. This is a great way to gain better awareness and understanding of your internal physiological processes and how you can use relaxation and breathing techniques to your advantage. Biofeedback that specifically focuses on paced breathing can help you to improve your heart rate variability, which can have a positive impact on vagal tone.17
11. Essential oils
Certain essential oils like lavender and bergamot have positive effects on the nervous system, activating the parasympathetic branch and increasing heart rate variability.18 As we know, higher heart rate variability is linked to higher vagal tone. Consider experimenting with aromatherapy sprays, essential oil diffusers, or essential oil-infused products. And if you need help choosing which essential oils to use, a ZYTO galvanic skin response scan can help.
12. Coffee enemas
As mentioned earlier, the vagus nerve runs from the brain all the way down to the gut. Stimulating the bowels through coffee enemas is believed to help activate the vagus nerve. That is why coffee enemas are recommended as an effective strategy for increasing vagal tone.3
Increasing vagal tone is simple and easy
The vagus nerve plays a key role in health and well-being, helping you to respond and adapt to stressors in your life, reduce inflammation, boost mood, and more.
Fortunately, increasing vagal tone couldn’t be simpler or easier. Many of the techniques that are used to stimulate the vagus nerve are likely things you already incorporate into your routine, such as exercise, laughing with friends, or listening to music. And for those techniques that you aren’t familiar with, experiment with new habits and practices to see what works best for you.
Just be sure to make the 12 activities above a priority in your daily life, so you can take advantage of the wonderful benefits of increased vagus nerve activity.
About Chelsea Clark
Chelsea Clark is a writer and certified health and wellness coach who is passionate about supporting others along their own health journeys. She enjoys helping people make positive, lasting changes so that they can live the happiest, healthiest life possible.
1. “Vagus Nerve Stimulation.” American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Aans.org.
2. Breit, S., A. Kupferberg, G. Rogler, & G. Hasler. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry 9 (2018): 44.
3. Detko. E. “Vagus Nerve 101.” Dr. Eva Dekto. Dr-eva.com.
4. McLaughlin, K.A., L. Rith-Najarian, M.A. Dirks, & M.A. Sheridan. “Low Vagal Tone Magnifies the Association between Psychosocial Stress Exposure and Internalizing Psychopathology in Adolescents.” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 44, no 2 (2015): 314–328.
5. Bergland, Christopher. “Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dramatically Reduces Inflammation.” Psychology Today. Psychologytoday.com.
6. Yuen, A.W.C. & J.W. Sander. “Can natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve improve seizure control?” Epilepsy Behavior 67 (2017): 105-110.
7. Kim, H.G., E.J. Cheon, et al. “Stress and Heart Rate Variability: A Meta-Analysis and Review of the Literature.” Psychiatry Investigation 15, no 3 (2018): 235–245.
8. Bergland, Christopher. “The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure.” Psychology Today. Psychologytoday.com.
9. Jungmann, M., S. Vencatachellum, D. Van Ryckeghem, & C. Vögele. “Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial.” JMIR Formative Research 2, no. 2 (2018): e10257.
10. Howland R.H. “Vagus Nerve Stimulation.” Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports 1, no. 2 (2014): 64–73.
11. Paccione, C.E. & H.B Jacobsen. “Motivational Non-directive Resonance Breathing as a Treatment for Chronic Widespread Pain.” Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019): 1207.
12. Gerritsen, R., & G. Band. “Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 12 (2018): 397.
13. Christensen, J.H. “Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Heart Rate Variability.” Frontiers in Physiology 2, no. 84 (2011).
14. Toro-Velasco, C., M. Arroyo-Morales, et al. “Short-term effects of manual therapy on heart-rate variability, mood state, and pressure pain sensitivity in patients with chronic tension-type headache: a pilot study.” Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 32, no. 7 (2009): 527-535.
15. Abuissa, H., J.H. O’Keefe Jr., et al. “Autonomic Function, Omega-3, and Cardiovascular Risk.” Chest Journal 127, no. 4 (2005): 1088-1091.
16. Kok, B.E., K.A. Coffey, et al. “How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone.” Psychological Science 24, no. 7 (2013): 1123-1132.
17. Bornemann, B., P. Kovacs & T. Singer. “Voluntary upregulation of heart rate variability through biofeedback is improved by mental contemplative training.” Scietific Reports 9, no. 1 (2019): 7860.
18. Chang, K.M., & C.W. Shen. “Aromatherapy Benefits Autonomic Nervous System Regulation for Elementary School Faculty in Taiwan.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2011): 946537.