The vagus nerve is your CEO of calm. It’s the commander-in-chief of your parasympathetic nervous system. It has the important job of ending your body’s fight-or-flight response once a stressor has passed. That’s why vagus nerve stimulation is so effective for mood, and has been approved as a novel treatment for depression. Vagus nerve stimulation can also relieve migraines and rapidly quench inflammation.
The vagus nerve is essentially your reset button.
Vagus means wandering in Latin, so the vagus was called the “wandering nerve” for its circuitous path from the brain to the organs in the chest and abdomen. The vagus nerve influences heart rate, respiration, and digestion, but it’s also the brain’s way of monitoring what is going on with those organs. In fact, most of the traffic in the vagus (80 percent of its messages) travel upstream from the body to the brain. That’s why the vagus is so important for mood. It monitors the organs to determine if all is well, and when it is, then the mind can rest easy. Contented.
A good indicator of vagal activation is something called heart rate variability. With higher vagal tone, there is slight decrease in heart rate with exhalation, and that’s a good thing. Higher vagal tone (and therefore higher heart rate variability) is associated with better general health including better digestion, reduced inflammation, increased emotional resilience and longevity. Lower vagal tone is associated with negative moods, more inflammation, and heart attacks.
People with high vagal tone have higher levels of oxytocin and are more prone to feelings of altruism. So the vagus has also been called the love nerve, or the compassion nerve. According to researcher Dr Dacher Keltner, it is vagus activation that gives us the warm, expansive feeling in our chests when we experience—or even think about—human kindness.
We used to think that some people were just born with high vagal tone. We now know that vagal tone can be improved.
How To Activate Your Vagus Nerve
- Breath deeply (try the 4-7-8 technique).
- Do yoga.
- Think kind thoughts about other people.
- Cultivate healthy intestinal bacteria (because they activate the vagus nerve and trigger the release of more of the calming neurotransmitter GABA in the brain).
- Eat something bitter. Herbalists have traditionally recommended bitter herbs to aid digestion and also—interestingly—to calm the mind.
Yours in Health,