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What Is The Vagus Nerve And How To Use It To Fight Stress

By Sara Novak

The vagus nerve is among the most complex systems of nerves in the body, running from the brain all the way to the abdomen. The purpose of the vagus nerve is to link the brain to other parts of the body. Sensations of touch, sound, and taste all originate from the vagus nerve as well as motor functions of the throat, heart, and involuntary muscles of the digestive tract. Damage to the vagus nerve is tied to a wide range of issues from trouble swallowing to heart rhythm issues and problems with digestion. The vagus nerve is a vast network of nerves which allows the body to run like a well oiled machine and plays a key role in the body’s stress response and gut health. 

Table Of Contents:

Why The Vagus Nerve Matters:

why the vagus nerve matters

Ok, so why is the vagus nerve so important?  It matters because it has a huge impact on mental and gut health. It’s known as the “wandering nerve” encircled the digestive system, lungs, and heart and as a result, impacting nearly every part of the body. From immune to inflammatory response, to fight or flight, the vagus nerve plays a major role. As a result, stimulation of the vagus nerve is important for both physical and mental health. 

The Vagus Nerve And Mental Health:

the vagus nerve and mental health

The vagus nerve makes up the largest component of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is a part of the automatic nervous system that controls functions when the body is at rest. While the sympathetic nervous system controls our fight or flight response, the parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s rest and digestive functions. Ideally, if you’re managing stress correctly, your parasympathetic nervous system should take back over immediately after a fight or flight response. According to the journal Psychiatry, “there is preliminary evidence that vagus nerve stimulation is a promising add-on treatment for depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and inflammatory bowel disease.”

A study published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that “improved vagus nerve function may in turn help promote [emotional] resilience.” Other research has looked to a new device used for vagus nerve stimulation that’s been shown to be effective. According to a study published in the journal Brain Stimulation a compelling body of research, including one five year study of vagus nerve stimulation found that it “can help fill in the gap left by existing pharmacological treatments,” for the treatment of depression.

The Vagus Nerve And Gut Health:

the vagus nerve and gut health

The vagus nerve sends signals back and forth from the brain to the gut. Since the vagus nerve shoots information from the brain to the body’s organs, it becomes an obvious link between our physical and mental health also known as the “mind/body connection.” Research has shown that the gut/brain axis is linked at least partially to the vagus nerve. A study published in the journal Brain Research found that “accumulating evidence in animals suggests that manipulation of these neurotransmitters by bacteria may have an impact in host physiology, and preliminary human studies are showing that microbiota-based interventions can also alter neurotransmitter levels.” Basically, this means that your mental health and gut health are largely connected. While we’ve long known that gut health was linked to digestion and even immune health, now we’re finding that your gut literally has a mind of its own. 

Another study published in the journal Neurotherapeutics came to similar conclusions. The authors write that the gastrointestinal tract is the largest endocrine organ in the body and “gut peptides” can bind to receptors on the vagus nerve enabling indirect communication. The connection between the mind and the gut is what makes mammals so special. The gut is our second brain for so many reasons. 

How The Vagus Nerve Impacts Stress:

the vagus nerve and stress

As mentioned above, the vagus nerve impacts your stress response, more specifically, the opposite response. The vagus nerve is responsible for telling you to calm down once a threat has passed, and stimulation can help relieve stress. Like an octopus, the tentacles of the vagus nerve send signals to the body’s internal organs, releasing hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin to help calm the body down. These hormones help to open our hearts and connect us to those that we love around us. Connection is where the magic happens. 

  • Oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone. And it’s so important in helping us to calm down. The hormone of connection, oxytocin is released when you breastfeed and also during intercourse. When we feel love, we’re much less likely to feel stressed.
  • Vasopressin. Vasopressin is another important hormone needed for love. It’s the hormone that makes you want to protect your partner. For example, research has shown that when animal models are given vasopressin suppressing drugs, they’re more likely to neglect their partners and not guard them from dangers. 

The stronger your vagus nerve response, the faster and more likely you are to bounce back after a stressful situation has passed. If you want to calm yourself down faster and not endure the negative health repercussions of a prolonged stress response, learning to work with the vagus nerve is a great place to start. Being able to react just in the moment and calm your stress response afterwards is the key to both physical and mental health. 

Learn More: The Low Cortisol Lifestyle: UMZU's Guide To Fighting Stress Naturally

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How To Use The Vagus Nerve To Fight Stress:

So now that you know the connection, I bet you’re wondering how to use it. How can you use the vagus nerve as your best weapon in combating the stress that ails you? Here are some tips:

1. Breathe Deeply

deep breathing

We already know that breathing deeply lowers stress levels, but the vagus nerve is one of the reasons why this is true. Breathing deeply stimulates our stress response. 

  • Inhale for 1-2-3, hold for 1-2-3, exhale for 1-2-3. Repeat for 3 minutes. Do this every time you feel stress building in your body or throughout the day before stress hits to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. I like to use this tool around 11 a.m. in the morning when my morning coffee is wearing off and cortisol levels are often at their highest. It’s a great tool for slowing down the central nervous system in times of need. 
  • Extend the exhalations. Extending the exhalations is helpful for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the entire body down. 
  • Alternative nostril breathing. Block off one of your nostrils on the inhale and unblock and exhale. Continue this for five minutes. This is a great practice to do before your yoga or meditation. It helps to calm the mind so you can sit for your practice. 

A study published in the journal Neurological Sciences found that “the results support the possibility that deep breathing techniques help induce an effective improvement in mood and stress in terms of self-reported evaluations.”

2. Reflexology 

reflexology

Foot massage has also been shown to impact the vagus nerve. Foot reflexology stimulates and positively impacts stress levels. In foot reflexology, the cranium is located at the top of the big toe and the nerve moves along the top of the foot almost to the ankle. On the bottom of the foot, you’ll move from the inside of the big toe and massage all the way down the inner arch of the foot. When you find a sore spot, that’s an area that requires extra attention. Repeat on the other foot.

3. Ear Massage 

ear massage

Ear massage is another tool that’s used for stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing your stress response. This technique is focused on the branches of the vagus nerve that go to your ear, called the oracular branches. Obviously, talk to your doctor before starting this practice and be gentle. Your ears are delicate and you don’t want to be pulling too hard. 

  • Ear ridge. Place your finger in the ridge over the ear canal and gently move in a circular motion. While you’re doing this you may automatically feel a sense of calm. Sometimes you don’t feel anything off the bat and that’s OK too. 
  • Back of the ear canal. Next, massage towards the back of the ear canal, making little gentle circles. Again, ensure that you’re not overdoing it and don’t push into the ear canal. You’re focused on the skin, rather than any deeper structures. Again, you should be working softly, not deeply. 
  • Pull gently on the ear. Pull the ear away from the head and move it around a bit. You may notice that one ear is tighter than the other. Or they may be the same. This is also helpful for a common stress response which involves the tightening of the jaw muscles. 

You’re gently sending messages along the vagus nerve, signaling for your sympathetic nervous system to take over. And at least for me, it seems to work. Taking just five minutes to work through the ears helps me to almost immediately feel better. 

4. Cold Water Immersion

cold water immersion

Cold water on the face is an ideal way to stimulate the vagus nerve. It’s a great way to wake up and it’s also helpful for stimulating your stress response. A study published in Circulation Journal found “cold-water face immersion (FI) is known to produce physiological changes, including bradycardia, by stimulating the parasympathetic system.” Another study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that “cold water face immersion appears to be a simple and efficient means of immediately accelerating post-exercise parasympathetic reactivation.”

5. Laughter

laughter

Laughter really is good for you. In fact, self initiated laughter stimulates the vagus nerve. Laughter yoga or laughter therapy is a great place to start. A study published in The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine found that “laughter therapy is a noninvasive and non-pharmacological alternative treatment for stress and depression, representative cases that have a negative influence on mental health. In conclusion, laughter therapy is effective and scientifically supported as a single or adjuvant therapy.” Another study published in the journal Rivista di Psichiatria found that “it has been demonstrated that laughter improves mood directly and moderates negative consequences of stressful events on psychological well-being.” The authors contend that it is possible to stimulate particular cerebral regions involved in “depression pathogenesis” just through the simple act of a belly laugh. Find something funny or just fake it until you make it. 

6. Vagus Nerve Stimulation

vagus nerve stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation has been used to treat epilepsy, depression, heart conditions and the list goes on. A study published in the journal Epilepsy Behavior found that “vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) therapy has been an option to treat pharmacoresistant seizures for 30 years.” Another study published in the journal Psychiatry found that “vagus nerve stimulation is an important new addition to the armentarium of the clinician treating patients with severe unipolar and bipolar affective disorders.” VNS is an implanted device most often used in treating epilepsy that doesn’t respond well to pharmacological intervention.

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