While reading the Art of Living Blog, you may have noticed how often we mention meditation and breathing practices as great tools to calm your nervous system. But what does calming your nervous system really mean? Scientifically speaking, it’s all about slowing down the heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, deepening your breath, and relaxing different muscles. The one thing these sensations all have in common is the vagus nerve–the thing that connects them to your brain.

What is the vagus nerve and why it is important?

If you haven’t heard of the vagus nerve, you’re not alone. But if you’re interested in improving your health, it’s important that you know about it and the role it plays in your body. It’s a major regulator of the peripheral nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response because of its ability to slow our pulse and lower our blood pressure. The vagus nerve is also a key player in the gut-brain axis, which has now gained a lot of attention in the wellness world.

The vagus nerve, also called the X cranial nerve or the 10th cranial nerve, is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves. It runs from the base of the brain through the neck and then branches out in the chest, stretching all the way down to the abdomen. The word “vagus” actually means “wandering” in Latin—and that’s exactly what the vagus nerve does, it wanders down the body, touching the heart and almost all major organs on its way, like your lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, fertility organs, and pancreas. It also affects your face, neck, ears, and tongue. It regulates breathing, heart rate, muscles, digestion, circulation, and even the vocal cords.

The vagus nerve is the part of the body that seems to explain how our minds control our bodies and how our bodies influence our minds. It is a bridge not only between our two physical nervous systems (our central and autonomic nervous systems), but also between our conscious minds and subconscious minds. As such, it also acts as a bridge between our gross bodies and our subtle bodies.

Our nervous system is built around the balance and harmony of two opposing activities.

  1. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is associated with the fight or flight response.
  2. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration.

These two parts of our autonomic nervous system are meant to work in rhythmic alternation, a process that supports healthy rhythms of alertness and restfulness that facilitate physical and mental health.

Commonly, chronic stress and unresolved trauma disturbs the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of your nervous system. We live in a world in which your sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated and activated, so we need access to tools that help us stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system on a daily basis. The vagus nerve has an inhibitory influence upon the sympathetic nervous system activity. Incorporating practices that stimulate the vagus nerve has a calming effect on your body and mind.

According to Andrea L. Bell, LCSW, SEP of Good Therapy, “Great things happen when we are parasympathetically dominant. Our breath is full, slow, and deep. The digestive system works well. The body can focus on repair, including reduction of inflammation, tissue repair, and hormone production. Subjectively, people feel fully present and alive. Many report feeling a pleasant softness and warmth, perhaps even throughout their bodies. When the SNS is on “standby” and the PNS is more active, people have a “buffer” for stress. They have energy to get through their day, but they can stay calm and present in challenging situations.”

What is the influence of the vagus nerve on your health?

In 1921, a German physiologist, Otto Loewi, discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German for “Vagus Substance”), now known as acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter in our nervous system. Since then, researchers have discovered a lot more about the vagus nerve and the role it plays in our health and in our body. For example, in the early 1990s, physicians began to notice that electrical stimulation of this nerve  reduces the rate of epileptic seizures and helps with depressive symptoms. Vagal tone, or the strength of your vagus nerve, is connected to inflammation, immune system regulation, metabolism, and emotional regulation. All of these are important for our body’s normal functioning.

According to Gretchen Lidicker, Health Editor of MindBodyGreen, low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional and attentional regulation, inflammation, depression, and is even used as a measurement for a person’s sensitivity to stress. Meanwhile, a healthy vagal tone is associated with the opposite: positive emotions and psychological balance. Some studies have even shown that increasing vagal tone could be helpful in treating addiction and certain cravings.

How can I strengthen my vagus nerve?

Many psychologists, neuroscientists, and integrative health experts say that there are various ways we can tap into the power of the vagus nerve to improve our physical and mental health.

There are many ways to help strengthen your vagus nerve, but here are my top 7:

1. Yoga and Mediation

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and Dorottya Lantos, researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London, say that yoga’s psychological benefits might be linked to the functioning of the vagus nerve. The researchers theorise that yoga practices–meditation, breathing and asanas–tone the vagus nerve. The proper functioning of the vagus nerve is said to promote regulation of emotion, social competence and pro-social behaviour. It also decreases aggression, hostility, depression and anxiety. Since the vagus nerve regulates our caring behaviour too, impact of yoga asanas on the nerve makes us feel calm, relaxed and safe in relation to others.

2. Deep breathing

Christopher Bergland, author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, mentions in Psychology Today that “Vagusstoff (acetylcholine) is like a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths.” In other words, the vagus nerve has everything to do with breathing—no wonder connecting with the breath is a founding principle in both yoga and meditation. That is why the practice of Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing practice, has proven to manually and naturally stimulate the vagus nerve. Scientists have found that SK&P (Sudarshan Kriya along with the related Practices, of yogic asanas, pranayamas, including Nadi Shodhana and meditation) can be extremely effective at opening up this vital channel of energy.

3. Mantra Chanting and Singing

The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, and chanting can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.

Research shows that chanting simple mantras like your favorite OM has a lot to do with the vagus nerve and that is why it has a soothing effect on our whole being. Chanting and singing produces slow, regular and deep respiration. This may also explain the soothing and relaxing effects of Kirtan (Satsang) – an important element of Bhakti Yoga.

4. Laughter is the best medicine

Laughter is a tranquilizer with no side effects.” – Arnold H. Glasgow

Laughter tends to reduce sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity while engendering softening, expanding, and relaxing parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity. One possible explanation for increased PNS activity is that the diaphragmatic movements induced by laughter help improve the cardiac vagal tone. Laughter not only helps prevent SNS activity by releasing emotional stress, but it also helps discharge aggressive, negative energy trapped as tension within the body as a result of past SNS overactivity.

Everyday start and end your day with a hearty laughter, there are plenty of proven benefits!

5. Cold bath or splashing cold water on face.

Ancient yogis bathed in cold water to increase prana (vital force energy) in the body. Now, studies show that cold habituation lowers sympathetic activation and causes a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity. There are numerous benefits of cold bathing. Try it out, and your vagus nerve will thank you!

6. Intermittent fasting

Research also shows that fasting and caloric restriction increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone. Considering many other health benefits of fasting, it’s definitely something to think about.

7. Probiotics

It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improves brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve plays a major role in the gut-brain axis, and this, in turn, plays a major role in our brain and behavior. By adding good quality probiotics to your diet can be really helpful, not only to your gut, but also to your vagus nerve.

Sherianna Boyle, MEd CAGS, the author of Emotional Detox: 7 Steps to Release Toxicity and Energize Joy and the founder of the seven-step C.L.E.A.N.S.E. Method™, also recommends the navel press, fear tap, hands to forehead, and cat-cow stretches to reactivate your vagal tone.

Strengthening and toning your vagus nerve can put you in control of your body and mind. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress. This can improve your mood, wellbeing and resilience. It can also help overcome anxiety and depression.

Take charge of your health and happiness today!

By Sejal Shah, E-YRT 500 Sri Sri Yoga Teacher, YACEP, Art of Living Teacher, NYU Post Graduate Medical School approved Yoga-CME retreat facilitator, Mind-Body Wellness Writer, Homeopath