The vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system and is essentially our “stress-reset button.” It has the important job of telling the body that everything is okay.
Increasing vagal tone and heart rate variability is one of the simplest and easiest ways to feel better fast.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is a finger of the brain that reaches down to the body to influence heart rate, respiration, and digestion. It influences the body’s organs but it’s also influenced by them. The vagus nerve is how the brain monitors the body to know if all is well and if it’s okay to relax.
When we stimulate the vagus nerve with breathing exercises or yoga or cold water (or many other things), it increases “parasympathetic tone” or “vagal tone” and a feeling of calm.
What is heart rate variability?
A good indicator of vagal tone is heart rate variability which is a slight decrease in heart rate with exhalation. It’s a good thing.
Lower heart rate variability (reduced vagal tone) is associated with negative mood and inflammation.
👉 Tip: Did you know that the vagus nerve innervates the cervix? When IUDs cause anxiety, I think it might have something to do with disruption of the vagus nerve.
Link with altruism
Higher vagal tone also boosts oxytocin and feelings of altruism. That’s why some researchers refer to the vagus as the love nerve or the compassion nerve. According to Dr. Dacher Keltner, vagus activation is the source of the warm, expansive feeling in our chests when we experience (or even think about) human kindness.
We used to think that some people are just born with high vagal tone. We now know it can be cultivated.
7 ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve heart rate variability
- Go outside into nature.
- Try a breathing technique with long exhalations.
- Do yoga. The combination of slow exhalations, forward-bends, and putting the hands above the head all work to stimulate the vagus nerve
- Keep your gut bacteria healthy (because they release GABA and activate the vagus nerve).
- Think kind thoughts about other people.
- Finish your shower with a blast of cold water.
- Eat something bitter. Bitter herbs and foods aid digestion and stimulate the vagus nerve.