The wellness industry is a hotbed for sticky terms or ideas—read: buzzwords—that the internet preoccupies itself with over a series of clickbait-y headlines and hot takes. For a minute, it was pore vacuums and spatula scrubbers, and then there was nature’s cereal (replacing milk with … coconut water?) and the “internal shower” drink. Every now and then, however, some things are brought to light that, while largely unknown to the general public, are very real and very legit concepts, recognized and backed by industry experts.
The vagus nerve (“va-guhs” not “vay-guhs”) is having its moment in the sun right now—a whopping 76.7 million posts mention the hashtag on TikTok—and when you cut through the noise and learn what it is (and what it most certainly isn’t), you can actually activate it to your advantage, says Erik Reis, DC, board-certified chiropractic functional neurologist at Northwestern Health Sciences University. “Understanding the vagus nerve and its role in regulating our nervous system is vital for optimizing health and recovery,” he says.
At its essence, the vagus nerve is really just a bundle of fibers. Our body has 12 pairs of cranial nerves that send sensory information from most of the head (the ears and eyes) to the brain, bypassing the spinal cord. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and has the widest distribution in the body, touching internal organs in our neck, chest, and stomach. And with great power comes great responsibility: it’s in charge of digestive functions, pulmonary functions, the interactions between our breathing and heart rate, and it coordinates reflexes like coughing, sneezing, and swallowing.
Taking the Nervous Out of the Nervous System
“Most people living in the United States—and around the world—are overstressed and living in constant fight-or-flight mode, which can cause significant decreases in our body’s ability to heal and tolerate stressors in the real world,” says Reis. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to decreased immune function, poor energy, altered sleep, and increased levels of anxiety and depression. But the yin to the yang of the sympathetic system is the parasympathetic system, of which the vagus nerve is a vital component of, he says.
When we suspect we’re in harm’s way, our amygdala fires off its alarm system and activates the nervous system, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and putting us on high alert. The sympathetic nervous system goes into high drive and orchestrates the fight-or-flight response, which causes our breathing to become quick and shallow, our muscles to tense up, and our conscious awareness to heighten. When we see that there is no imminent danger after all (like mistaking a fly for a wasp), the parasympathetic part of our nervous system steps in to bring our body back to rest.
However, there are times where hypervigilance sticks around longer than we’d like—and that’s because our brain can get stuck in a state of panic. That’s when it’s useful to learn how to increase your vagal tone so your body can relax faster after a run-in with stress, no matter how real the actual threat was.
“Increasing vagal nerve output, known as vagal tone, can yield significant improvements in our overall health and wellness,” says Reis. “And the best part about that is that it doesn’t take much to do so. You can make notable improvements in your vagal nerve output by simply working on deep belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) exercises and changing your respiration rate.”
Exercises to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
- Fight the fight-or-flight with fitness: Research shows that getting your body moving can increase your vagus nerve activity and decrease your heart rate variability. But you don’t have to run a marathon or even a mile—simply climbing the stairs at home can help.
- Being connected with our breath is a founding principle of mindfulness practices. Different forms of meditation (or mind-body exercises, like yoga) help to slow down our breathing and extend exhalation.
- The vagus nerve connects to our vocal cords. Making sounds like singing or even humming can stimulate it—sing-saying “om” or “voooo” produces a vibratory sensation that can help deactivate the fight-or-flight response.
- And lastly, Reis’s favorite: “Breathe in through the nose and do a quick ‘double nasal maximum inhale,’ followed by a slow, full-mouth exhale. This is the fastest way to calm down the fight-or-flight response to increasing vagal tone. By doing a 10-minute breathing session, you can rewire your vagal tone and improve your health.”
Located in Bloomington, Northwestern Health Sciences University is a premier integrative health institution that prepares the next generation of healthcare professionals deliver and advance healthcare, offering 11 areas of study. Its clinics and TruNorth Wellness Hub are open to the public to support healthier, better lives for all. Bloomington Clinic specializes in whole-family care, providing chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, nutrition, and cupping. Sweere Clinic offers comprehensive care for complex pain conditions and trauma. The Biomechanics Lab and Human Performance Center support proper movement and recovery through gait analysis, rehabilitation, and strength and conditioning.
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