The vagus nerve and stress
You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it, but chatter around the vagus nerve is growing. Many experts believe that stimulating and toning our vagus nerve, also known as cranial nerve X, may help to keep our stress levels to a minimum and improve our body’s response to it.
We explore the vagus nerve in more detail and how stimulating it may come with stress-busting benefits.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our body, running through the brain, face, thorax and the abdomen. It plays a part in controlling involuntary sensory and motor functions, such as our heart rate, speech and mood. It helps us to switch between our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response, which triggers a stress response in our body to perceived danger (increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tense muscles) whereas the PNS is our ‘rest-and-digest system’ (a slower heart rate, deeper breathing). If our vagus nerve isn’t working as it should, we may stay in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response for longer than necessary, becoming stressed.
Experts also believe there is a close relationship between our gut and brain (the gut-brain axis), and that the two pass messages through the vagus. Our mood and gut health are actually more closely linked than we might think. Studies suggest that our brain can affect gut health and our gut can affect brain health. When the vagus nerve doesn’t work properly, the gut-brain collaboration can be thrown out of sync, too.
What’s the link between stress and the vagus nerve?
When our vagus nerve is activated and working as it should, it can soothe our stress response. If you have a high vagal tone, you likely have a good response to stress.
But if we have low vagal tone and our vagus nerve isn’t working correctly, our mood can suffer as a result. It becomes less effective at soothing our stress response, meaning we may stay in a state of fear or anxiety. We may struggle with insomnia and sleep, experience headaches and have other aches and pains that are synonymous with stress.
This is where we might want to explore stimulating and toning the vagus nerve.
How can we stimulate the vagus nerve?
Vagus nerve stimulation, which involves surgically implanting a device similar to a pacemaker under the collarbone, was recently approved in the US as a treatment for depression. The UK has yet to approve it.
However, there are other ways we can stimulate it – and most won’t cost you a penny.
As our vagus nerve also passes through the throat, experts in the field believe that breathing exercises can stimulate it as our throat muscles contract. If you’ve never tried breathing exercises before, try the 4-4-8 method: breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold for 4, release for 8 through your nose.
Exposure to cold temperatures are also thought to stimulate our vagus nerve. You can try turning the temperature right down for a cold shower, splashing iced water on our face or cold water swimming.
Humming, singing, gargling and chanting
Similar to deep breathing, the vibrations caused by humming, singing, gargling, or even chanting can encourage vagus nerve activity. Give it a go, the next time you’re feeling stressed out.
Looking after gut health
As we mentioned earlier, it’s believed our gut health is closely tied to our brain via the vagus nerve. By looking after our gut health, we can look after our bran health. Do this by ensuring getting enough fibre, using probiotics as well as eating fermented foods (such as kefir, kombucha and kimchi).
What about products?
There are some gadgets currently on the wellness scene that target our vagus nerve to in turn lower our stress levels (and help to maximise our body’s ability to cope with stress) and anxiety.
One of these includes Sensate (£199). This pebble-shaped device connects to your phone via an app. It emits vibrations aimed at stimulating your vagus nerve, while the app on your phone plays relaxing music. Save £20 on your order when you use the code LIZLOVES at Sensate.