Picture a tree-like bundle made up of thousands of fibers flowering in your brain, sending its roots down through each side of the neck, into the torso, and then spreading its branches through the vast network of nearly all your internal organs. This amazingly long and influential “vagus” nerve gets its name from the Latin word for “wandering”. Along its so-called “information superhighway” journey, it gathers information about how the organs are functioning, sending information from the brain down to the rest of the body.
If you’ve seen the vagus nerve pop up on your social media timelines a lot lately (and with over 70,000 hashtag mentions on Instagram, according to The New York Times, you likely already have), there's a good reason for it. Known for its various internal functions, mostly unconscious actions like breathing and digestion, the pneumogastric, a.k.a. “vagus”, nerve also creates important links between the critical gut-brain axis. Further, it plays a role in controlling voice, mood, heart rate, and the immune system.
The vagus is a secret weapon for managing the triggers of stress and anxiety, housed within the parasympathetic nervous system, unlike the organs of the sympathetic nervous system, which trigger our fight-flight-freeze responses. As the longest of our cranial nerves, it’s perhaps the nerve with the greatest potential for supporting mind-body wellness, easing us into rest, proper digestion and relaxation.
“Travel” or “wander” is really the perfect way to describe how the vagus nerve weaves through the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the reproductive system, and many other organs. Along this neuronal superhighway, the vagus nerve covers a stunning amount of ground as it takes readings from each of these internal “destinations”, passing messages between the brain, gut, and other organs. In the late 1800s, the vagus nerve first piqued the attention of the scientific community as they sought out nerve activations to treat epilepsy. Later, they discovered a surprising side effect: mood improvements.
A large body of research has investigated the relationship between the vagus nerve (and vagal tone, which we’re about to get into) and many health conditions, but especially psychiatric disorders. Other evidence in regards to stimulating the vagus nerve covers a wide array of possibilities to treat depression, PTSD, epilepsy, diabetes, and various inflammatory autoimmune conditions. More recently, the Coronavirus’s effect on the vagus nerve and its impact on long Covid symptoms are being studied.
One especially exciting new development in neuroscience was recently published by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California San Francisco. Using a simple device that is similar to an earbud, wearers’ abilities to learn the sounds of a new language were significantly improved. Their precisely timed, non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation techniques improved participants’ comprehension and expression of Mandarin tones up to twice as quickly than usual. The scientific and education communities are anxious to learn more about how stimulating the vagus nerve can lead to even more improvements in health and learning outcomes. So, knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that the vagus is an exceptionally powerful nerve, what can we do to harness its power to the fullest?
Psychologists say that when we have unresolved trauma, the vagal tone becomes weak. A weak vagal tone has been linked to high inflammation, which scientists believe is linked to almost all psychiatric conditions, as well as chronic illnesses, digestive issues, cardiovascular diseases, mood disorders, etc. When the vagal tone is weak, it inhibits our ability to manage and recover from stress. This leads to a “stuck” nervous system, or a type of shutting down that can switch us into fight-flight-freeze mode. In children, low vagal tone has also been associated with poor attention and emotion regulation.
Alternatively, when the vagal tone is strong, we are likely to feel calm, cool, and collected. A strong immune system and overall feelings of wellbeing are the result of the vagus nerve working to enhance our physical and mental health. Used to measure cardiovascular function, vagal tone also facilitates our adaptive responses to environmental challenges (Source: NIH). Studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can support those who experience epilepsy by decreasing seizure frequency, with additional benefits to help with gastrointestinal and pelvic pain, migraines, depression, anxiety, and much more.
One current challenge for understanding the full vitality of vagal tone is that HRV (heart rate variability) is the closest tool that exists at the moment for measuring vagal tone. Alternatively, studies have relied on self-evaluations regarding participant symptoms in related areas of health. This means that many studies are testing how the heart functions to determine how the vagal tone is doing, but the “vagabond nerve” also reaches so many other areas of the body. Those whose digestion improved or anxiety was lessened were thought to be experiencing improved vagal tone. Further research is needed to verify what many holistic and mental health practitioners have observed help heal their patients over many years.
Last year, we questioned whether woo-woo wellness is really worth the hype. Our takeaway? Science-backed woo-woo does exist, and doctors have even acknowledged it actually works! Woo-woo can be myth or magic, but even in the case of woo-woo wellness that turns out to be a type of “placebo”, many experts agree if the mind believes healing is taking place, it can positively impact our health.
Before we dive into the rituals and herbs that have been shown, through anecdotal or scientific evidence, to be effective in stimulating and soothing the vagus nerve, let’s take a look at some woo-woo wellness practices that are circulating among 60+ million viewers on TikTok (#vagusnerve) and other media.
WOO-WOO OR WORTH IT #1? :: VAGUS MASSAGE OIL
Our take: Worth it!
In Taiwan, researchers explored the efficacy of essential oils to help regulate the autonomic nervous system. Their findings included promising results for calming the parasympathetic nervous system and bringing about a more balanced state for participants. Vagus nerve massages that target the neck and shoulders have demonstrated the potential to improve vagal tone, and numerous other health functions.
WOO-WOO OR WORTH IT #2? :: VIBRATING BRACELETS
Our take: Skip it.
Stress relief technology is on the rise, and one writer at The Washington Post reported a decidedly lukewarm response to trying out these pricey purchases. With a lack of evidence to back manufacturers’ claims about how these gadgets actually deliver the results they promise, we suggest trying more cost-effective measures, like the rituals below. There’s so much you can do to tap into your body’s own intelligence, with a little help from practitioners in somatics, spiritual traditions, and holistic medicine.
WOO-WOO OR WORTH IT #3? :: PILLOW MISTS
Our take: Make your own.
Sleep is a critical component of our mental and physical health, so of course we’re fans of wellness hacks that can help us ease into dreamland. But, they often come with hefty price tags, and there’s no reason you can’t make your own aromatherapy at home. Check our relax and sleep collection to learn more about herbal allies that help bring about sweet and lucid dreaming, and consider spritzing your pillow with a DIY concoction tailored to your needs. If you’re not sure where to start, you can ask one of our herbalists via the herbalist hotline (click “chat with an herbalist” to start your free consultation).
WOO-WOO OR WORTH IT #4? :: GARGLING SALT WATER
Our take: Worth a try.
Because the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords and the throat muscles, gargling is one of the rituals in the throat-stimulating category that has been shown to help with vagal tone. But, as far as we’re concerned, there are quite a few more fun and interesting ways to get those throat muscles vibrating (see below) that you’re more likely to enjoy, and therefore repeat daily for better results. Everyone is different, so if gargling is your thing, gargle away! Especially if you have a sore throat or want to prevent the risk of cavities and gingivitis, gargling salt water could give two birds their wings with one rinse.
WOO-WOO OR WORTH IT #6? :: ICY FACE BATH
Our take: Ouch, but maybe?
Yes, you might be able to trigger the “diving reflex”, which slows the heart rate and helps constrict blood vessels, by holding your breath and dunking your face in cold water. Some have even reported it helps them with insomnia and has a calming effect, just as a cold compress placed on the chest can help relieve anxiety. Though the risks are relatively low and some experts think it’s worth trying, there aren’t enough studies to confirm whether or not this particularly chilling tactic actually chills us out. We recommend discussing this and any other vagus nerve stimulations with your preferred wellness provider prior to experimenting on your own, especially if you have preexisting conditions or other health concerns.
Numerous studies have shown that the vagus nerve could hold a major key to healing an astonishing number of modern ailments. While there’s still so much to learn about this wandering nerve, keep in mind that many vagus-stimulating interventions are generally good for your health anyway, so giving them a try is a relatively safe bet. To know which of these rituals work best for you, consider trying one at a time. Many of these are backed by research, and we’ve included some important data to help you decide which to incorporate into your daily routines. Bottom line: the majority of these rituals are easy and cost-effective (if not free) to help improve vagal tone in the comfort of your home. Here’s a look at 8 of our favorites.
1. HUM OR CHANT
Chanting has been reported to have positive effects on the nervous system. It also increases connectedness while decreasing stress. Stimulating the vagus nerve, chanting sounds can also activate the body’s natural healing process, play a role in reversing heart disease, lower cholesterol, and block the release of stress hormones to boost overall immune function. Vibrational sounds not only activate the vocal cords, they have also been used by ancient civilizations to connect to the land and its yields.
2. SUPPLEMENT YOUR DIET
If your diet includes healthy servings of fruits and root vegetables, your nervous system may already feel extra nourished. Healthy fats help to create strong brain and nerve tissues, so you definitely want to include those to boost cognition, movement, and mood, as well as the absorption of key vitamins and minerals. B12 and B vitamins can protect the nerves from harmful chemicals. You can get folate B vitamins from spinach, pomegranates and beets, while B12 is plentiful in algae like spirulina and chlorella.
3. REGULATE SLEEP HABITS
Keep your sleep-wake cycle consistent to level out your mind and mood. The body’s circadian rhythms control the sleep-wake cycle, and when this cycle gets thrown off, we may experience memory loss, diminished focus, and other unwanted side effects of those restless nights. If your schedule doesn’t allow for sleep to happen during natural daylight-moonlight cycles, try blackout curtains to help mimic the womb-like qualities of darkness that soothe the parasympathetic nervous system for deeper rest.
4. DIVE INTO DARKNESS
Resting in darkness can help jumpstart melatonin synthesis. In darkness, the pineal gland is triggered to start producing melatonin, whereas light stops that cycle of creation. Melatonin is an extraordinarily potent antioxidant that plays a critical role in regulating circadian rhythms between night and day, among other functions. We need it to transition to sleep, and for establishing a consistent quality of rest.
5. COLD THERAPY
Curb stress and increase blood flow to the brain with cold water immersion. While many of us may initially be resistant to choosing cold showers or ice baths of any kind, cold water can stimulate our immune system, thus activating the vagus nerve. When our vagabond nerve isn’t flowing well, neither is our gut. As a result, we may experience weight gain, anxiety, stress spikes, nutrient deficiencies, and much more. Try just a few minutes to start until you get more comfortable, and remember to exhale deeply … it’s only a little temporary discomfort with potentially astounding results for your overall wellness.
6. PACE YOUR BREATHING
Countless studies have shown that deep breathing can lower stress levels by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Many experts recommend diaphragmatic or paced breathing, but sometimes a little counting trick is just what we need to ease into a mindful state. Here’s an easy one to try: The 4-7-8 Breath. Breathing through the nose, inhale for four counts, hold the breath for seven counts, then exhale for eight counts. For added benefits, start your breathing practice in darkness, close your eyes, and simply observe the breath for a few moments before you begin paced breathing.
7. GET YOUR YIN ON
We’ve all heard that yoga can make you stronger, more flexible, and more “open”, but can it make you yawn? Yin Yoga, which originated in the 1980s in California, with its foundations in the Taoist concepts of yin and yang. Yin is rooted in the feminine, with stable, grounding postures and other targeted fascia-stretching movements (Source: Women’s Health). If you’re not feeling the Yin, slow stretching, yoga nidra or restorative yoga are some of the other practices that can gently activate the vagus nerve, promote quality sleep and relaxation, and are all appropriate for beginners or any level of mover.
8. EXPLORE SOUND HEALING
Scientific studies have shown reductions in stress and anxiety through the power of sound, while ancient sound healing traditions have been used in Tibet for over 2,000 years. Binaural beats and sound baths are some of the most widely researched techniques with proven results for decreasing blood pressure, reducing anxiety, and enhancing mood states, among other health benefits. Isn’t it incredible that whether we’re chanting, humming, gargling, listening to soothing music, or letting the waves of a sound bath wash over us, the body responds so strongly and immediately to these seemingly simple therapies?
To learn more about regulating and nourishing your nervous system, visit our blog here.