We all have heard of our body’s automatic “fight or flight” response in our nervous system; it’s the body-brain response to perceived threats and stress. But did you know that we also have an automatic “rest and digest” response in our nervous system? We do! And it is controlled by the amazing vagus nerve.
Why Should You Care About Your Vagus Nerve?
Without getting too science-y, the vagus nerve sends messages back and forth between your brain, your gut, and your organs, such as:
- I’m full.
- It’s time to digest this food. Send out the enzymes!
- My heart rate needs to slow down in this stressful situation.
- My breathing rate needs to slow down in this stressful situation.
- These little gut-microbes are telling me to lower an inflammatory response.
- I should trust my gut on this.
Of course, this is very simplified! This complex system is only beginning to be understood, and it does a lot more than described here. Something we do know, however, is that not everyone is blessed with a “toned” vagus nerve, and poor vagal-tone is partly hereditary.
When your fight-or-flight response is running rampant (thanks, 2020!), your vagus nerve doesn’t have a chance to do its job properly. Thus, if you have poor vagal tone or are crazy-stressed all the time, those important messages can be delayed, too quiet, or may not be sent at all. It is no wonder that poor vagal tone is linked to:
- Poor stress response
- Weight gain
- Chronic digestive issues such as IBS
- And so much more
What is the good news? You can improve your vagal tone (and the strength of those messages!) by learning how to stimulate your vagus nerve.
How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
When you stimulate your vagus nerve, you are initiating the “relax” response in your body. Over time, your body will become better at initiating the response on its own (and working harder at sending all those messages!). There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, some more unusual than others!
- Take deep, slow, breaths. There are many breathing exercises you can do to initiate relaxation, but long and slow breathing (about six per minute) is most recommended. Imagine yoga breathing, where you breathe in, filling up your belly and then your lungs - and then exhale slowly and completely until you are empty of air.
- Increase your gut flora. Yes, the gut-brain connection is real! And if your good gut-bacteria isn’t flourishing, then your vagus nerve suffers. Taking probiotics or eating fermented foods with live cultures (like kimchi, sauerkraut, homemade yogurt) can help boost those good bacteria in your gut.
- Meditate. Meditation helps slow your breathing, but it also increases positive emotions and feelings toward self and others - and has been proven to increase your vagal activity.
- Have a cold shower. For some reason, exposure to acute cold lowers your fight or flight response over time, and activates the vagus nerve. Try ending your shower with thirty seconds of cold water, and see how you feel!
I am always fascinated when I learn new things about how my mind and body work together so gracefully - and how when something is “out of sync”, our bodies do their best to tell us! I wonder, what has your body been telling you? Has this past year pushed you into a state of constant stress? If your mood is off, your digestion not normal, or you are holding onto weight more easily… Perhaps your vagus nerve needs some love!
References & Reading:
- The Nerve That Stops You From Losing Weight and Upsets Your Stomach
- The Importance of the Vagus Nerve for Health & Weight Loss
- The Vagus Nerve: Your Body's Communication Superhighway
- 19 Factors That May Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve Naturally
- Viva the Vagus! Five Facts About the Tenth Cranial Nerve
- How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health