How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally

5 CITATIONS - 05/08/2024  

Key Takeaways

01.  Many people are stuck in a state of “fight or flight,” which can cause a laundry list of mental and physical health issues

02.  Learning to breathe slowly can stimulate the vagus nerve naturally, helping you to relax

03.  Using The Shift will help you master your breathing so that you can transition to the rest-and-digest state of relaxation

04.  Exercise, cold stimulation, massages, and music are other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally

Let Your Vagus Nerve Breathe

It seems like there are more and more things to worry about with every passing year. The rising cost of living, navigating technological advances, political and social issues, staying on top of healthy living trends… the list goes on—as we’re sure you know! 

 

As a result of this added stress, many people (maybe even you!) are stuck in “fight or flight.” The fight or flight response is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat or danger. When faced with a threat, your body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare it to either confront the threat (fight) or escape (flight). 

 

This is incredibly important for survival and handling stressful situations like a car accident, don't get us wrong! However, being caught in a sustained fight-or-flight response due to situations like being stuck in traffic, meeting a work deadline, or stressing over those larger issues mentioned above is not beneficial. 

 

This arrested state can lead to a litany of health issues. The body will continuously produce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to chronic health conditions such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and trouble sleeping. You may also experience physical symptoms like increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and digestive problems. Being stuck in this mode can take an emotional toll, understandably, and lead to feelings of numbness, burnout, or irritability.

 

How do you get unstuck or avoid getting stuck in the first place? One simple place to start is to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally.

Tip: Think “Las Vegas” when pronouncing it

What is the Vagus Nerve? 

The vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve or cranial nerve X, is a major part of the nervous system. It’s divided into two parts: the left vagus nerve travels down the left side of the body, and the right vagus nerve travels down the right side of the body– similar to a fork in a river.

 

The vagus nerve regulates various involuntary sensory and motor (movement) functions, making it a critical component of everyday life.

 

Some of these include: 

  • Digestion 
  • Mood stabilization
  • Heart rate
  • Swallowing
  • Saliva production
  • Blood pressure
  • Immune responses
  • And more…

A great way to think of the vagus nerve is as an information superhighway. It allows all of the body's main organs to communicate and keeps you thriving and surviving. And it helps you do all of these processes unconsciously. It worries about it so that you don’t have to!

 

The vagus nerve also plays a key role in regulating the balance between the fight or flight response and the rest and digest state because it’s a part of the autonomic nervous system. Hence why stimulating the vagus nerve naturally is such a great idea!

 

The autonomic nervous system is divided into three main divisions, each with its own functions and responsibilities:

 

  • Sympathetic nervous system (SNS): This system activates the body's fight-or-flight response during stressful situations or emergencies. It increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate and diverts blood movement to the muscles.
  • Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS): This system is responsible for calming the body and helping it rest and digest. In contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, it slows heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and aids digestion and recovery.
  • Gastrointestinal nervous system: This system helps the digestive system. It controls gut motility, secretions, and blood flow and is key in digesting and absorbing food.

 

The vagus nerve is a part of your parasympathetic nervous system. That means that when the vagus nerve is activated, it can help calm the body by slowing the heart rate and promoting digestion, breaking the fight or flight response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. 

 

Let’s say, for instance, that you had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a car that pulled out in front of you. That instant sky-high heart rate and heavy breathing is the sympathetic nervous system kicking in and helping you deal with the situation. Once you’ve continued driving and the danger is gone, the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system will initiate to calm your body down. These complementary forces work together like yin and yang.

 

Pretty nifty, right?

Why Stimulate the Vagus Nerve?

When internal stress and “fight or flight” won’t turn off, though, your nervous system (and you!) might need a little help. Stimulating the vagus nerve can move your body from a fight-or-flight state of stress to a rest-and-digest state of relaxation. 

 

It’s kind of like turning on the “calm” switch for your body. If you’re like us, you may have wished for that a time or two!

 

Because the vagus nerve affects your mental and physical health in a variety of ways, stimulating can have wide-ranging positive effects. 

 

Some of these are:

 

Basically, your vagus nerve is a powerhouse in your body. The more you can do to help keep it regulated and strong, the more it can help improve your responses to various emotional and physical situations.

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally

Knowing how to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally is one of the simplest ways to support your nervous system. What’s one of the best and easiest techniques? 

 

Breathing.

 

Yes, you read that right! By simply practicing breathing, you can help provide a boost to your vagal nerves. This sends a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, well-being, and resilience.

 

We’re not just talking about normal, subconscious breathing, though. The key is to practice proper breathing. Quick, shallow breathing can trigger an anxiety response, which is the opposite of what we want! 

Your goal will be to breathe slowly. Specifically, exhaling slowly.

Slowing your exhale stimulates the vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, reduces anxiety, and calms the mind.

 

Think of it this way: Inhaling is like pressing the gas pedal, and exhaling is like pressing the brake. When you inhale, you activate your sympathetic nervous system, facilitating a brief heart rate acceleration. If you inhale rapidly and repeatedly, you go faster and faster so that your body is prepared for whatever situation is ahead.

 

When you exhale, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system and thus stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. With each exhale, the vagus nerve secretes a transmitted substance, which causes deceleration via the PNS. The more you exhale, the more you press the brake, and the slower you’ll go. That’s a good thing and the goal!

 

When you’re stuck in that loop of anxiety or the fight or flight response, your breathing tends to get out of balance, and the stress response continues to flood your system. 

 

That’s where improved breathing comes in! It can help you think better and feel better by triggering the vagus nerve. This sends the signal that “Woah, we’re alright. You can calm down now.” 

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally By Breathing: The Method

It’s just breathing. How hard can it be?

There’s actually a specific method you should adhere to ensure that you are getting the most out of your breathwork. That way, you will stimulate the vagus nerve and feel those de-stressing effects.

 

To feel the full effect of breathing properly, repeat this cycle for 5 minutes.

 

How to inhale:

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
  • Inhale slowly through the nose.
  • Breathe into your belly.
  • The hand on your belly should move. Not the one on your chest.
  • Fill your belly up with air and pause when full.

 

How to exhale:

  • Play around with exhaling through the nose and the mouth.
  • Start slowly. As slowly as you can.
  • Exhale all of your air out.
  • Feel the hand on your belly move again.
  • Pause for a second before the next inhale.

 

Once you’ve mastered this, start adding it to your daily routine so that you continually allow it to bolster your wellness. 

 

Here’s an easy way to harness these benefits throughout your day.

  • Set a timer for 60 minutes. 
  • Every time the timer goes off, breathe purposefully for 2-5 minutes. 
  • A slow, deep inhale followed by a slow, long exhale. 
  • Do this all day long or for a few hours and see how it affects your level of anxiety and stress.

Your Tool To Success

Breathing to stimulate your vagus nerve naturally can’t get easier than using The Shift.

 

The Shift is a necklace concept that slows your exhale to 8+ seconds, triggering your vagus nerve to calm your nervous system. There’s no app, batteries, or chemicals involved…it just leverages a proven breath technique that calms you naturally and silently. It's like an anchor that is always there to keep you (and your nervous system) calm and cool.

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The Shift, so much good in one breath.

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Other Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally

When you’ve mastered breathing, consider adding other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. The more you can do to support this nerve system, the more powerful and impactful it will be.

Vagus Stimulating Exercises

These are some easy exercises to add to your wellness routine.

Exercise

Contrary to what we may think should happen and what was initially hypothesized, scientists have discovered that exercise can actually stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. 

 

As one study states, “The increase in heart function during exercise was traditionally stated to be predominantly under sympathetic nervous system control, with little to no role for the parasympathetic nervous system during exercise. Recent work suggests this is not the case and that both nervous systems can be active and act complementarily to give an appropriate physiological response. Using a large animal exercise model, our study demonstrates the critical role of the cardiac parasympathetic nervous system during exercise for the first time. We show that cardiac vagal nerve activity increases during exercise and that removing this nerve reduces blood flow through the left main coronary artery during exercise.”

 

Endurance and aerobic training, specifically, help activate and promote healthy vagal functioning. Some potential benefits include reducing the potential for cardiovascular disease and contributing to anti-inflammatory properties.

 

Let’s not forget that exercise is also beneficial for a wide variety of reasons, including weight management, brain health, reducing the risk of disease, and more. So, if you’re looking to improve your health and activate your vagal nerves, don your workout gear, turn on your favorite playlist, and get moving!

Cold Stimulation

For those who hate the cold and are vehemently against icy showers, this probably isn’t your favorite thing to learn… but it works, and it works quickly! The cold stimulation restricts blood vessels, thus activating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system.

 

Scientists hypothesize that helping to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally with cold therapy can positively affect sleeping, anxiety, stress reduction, and more.

 

Options for cold stimulation include: 

Massaging

Who doesn’t love a massage? Not only can it help reduce stress and ease sore muscles, but it can also help activate the vagus nerve! 

 

This non-invasive technique involves applying moderate pressure to the area between the muscles in the neck and shoulder area and below the base of the skull. Another option is to massage the carotid sinus area gently.

 

Massaging, in general, may be linked to improved vagal performance, but more studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of this action. So consider this your sign to book a massage or ask a loved one for a neck rub to help stimulate your vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system.

Music

Music has the remarkable ability to evoke emotions and influence moods, but it can also impact physical health by stimulating the vagus nerveHeart rate variability (HRV) is closely linked to vagal tone. Studies found that listening to music with a slow tempo can increase HRV, suggesting an increase in vagal activity and improved autonomic nervous system function.

 

Music can also indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve by influencing emotions. Research has found that music-induced positive emotions increased vagal activity, helping to modulate the stress response and promote relaxation. Additionally, certain types of music can help regulate breathing patterns, which the vagus nerve plays a key role in.

 

In short, incorporating calming or slow-tempo music into your daily routine can help promote relaxation, reduce stress, and potentially enhance overall well-being by stimulating that magical vagus nerve.

The Takeaway

Actively incorporating ways to simulate the vagus nerve naturally is a powerful and accessible way to support your overall well-being. Practicing proper breathing techniques can help shift your body from a fight-or-flight state to a more relaxed, rest-and-digest mode. Incorporating these simple breathing exercises into your daily routine can have transformative effects on your mental and physical health. And don’t forget, the Shift can help ensure you’re on track for success!

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