The Magic of the Vagus Nerve
by Stacy Thomas | November 3, 2020, updated 22 days ago
The key to health, and happiness is running through your body right now. It’s not magic—it’s the vagus nerve.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is a double twined nerve that starts in the cerebellum of the brain and runs the entire length of your torso. It goes all the way to the colon, and makes significant stops at all of your organs along the way. Vagus means wander in latin, which is fitting because it wanders its way throughout your entire system, branching off into intricate networks that transmit signals to and from the brain.
What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?
This nerve brings crucial information directly from all your organs to your brain, and back again. This ‘little’ nerve is responsible for how your body reacts to stress and anxiety. Its responsibilities include some of the most vital functions in our bodies.
Your vagus nerve is key in regulating your parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” system, which is a set of nerves that control our ability to calm down during and after stress. The vagus nerve’s ability, or lack thereof, to carry the right signals influences how stressed out we are in general.
What is a Vagal Tone?
The speed at which our heart rate speeds and slows determines our vagal tone. The vagal tone is measured by our breathing and our heart rate. As we breathe in, our heart rate increases. As we breathe out, it slows down again. If it is fast, or high, it means our body is good at quickly recovering after times of stress.
Since stress is one of the biggest contributors to illness, it follows that having a high “vagal tone” is important. Here are some of the physical and mental benefits associated with high vagal tone—
- Better blood sugar regulation
- Better digestion
- Reduced migraines
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease
- Less anxiety
- Better stress resistance
Low vagal tone, in turn, has myriad negative effects on your body. These include but are not limited to—
- cognitive impairment
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
How Do I ‘Tone’ My Vagus Nerve?
Slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing. You know when you see a baby sleeping and their little belly is moving in and out deeply and slowly with the natural rhythm of their breath? This is the breathing that you want to emulate, as much as possible. When you breathe slowly, deeply, and with the diaphragm, this signals your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down.
Cold water. Go jump in a lake. Or a river. Or, take a cold shower. Or, you can splash some cold water on your face (probably the easiest option), to stimulate your vagus nerve, and calm down.
Hum. The vagus nerve is connected very closely to the vocal cords, so using your voice by singing, humming or chanting is a great way to stimulate it. Crank up your car tunes, and sing like no one’s listening!
Practice loving kindness. Make friends! A 2010 study found that the positive feedback loop that is produced by fostering positive social connections and practicing goodwill towards others, stimulated the vagus nerve and increased general vagal tone.
Laughter. Although studies are still scarce around laughing and increased vagal tone, there have been many instances where a direct correlation between laughing and the vagus nerve have been shown. Some studies have demonstrated that laughing increases our heart rate variability, which is the vagus nerve’s domain.
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.