If you feel simultaneously on-edge and burned out, your vagus nerve could likely use a tune-up. The vagus nerve is one of the largest and most complex nerves in the body, and one of its most important jobs is spurring relaxation. When the vagus nerve is not functioning at its peak, you can experience exhaustion, brain fog, chronic stress, insomnia or even GI upset. Long term, a sluggish vagus nerve can even contribute to diabetes and heart disease because of the role it plays in taming stress. Luckily, simple vagus nerve exercises can strengthen it and restore your stamina. Here’s what you need to know, and how to keep your vagus in tip-top shape.
The vagus nerve, also known as “the great wandering protector”, starts at your brain stem and branches out down the left and right sides of your neck. From there, it continues to send its tendrils of nerve fibers throughout the heart, lungs and digestive tract. So what exactly does this large branch of nerves do? It plays a key role in heart rate, digestion, mood regulation, immune response and more.
“The vagus nerve activates the relaxation response, the healing response and the restorative response in the body,” says Eddie Stern, a yoga teacher and author of One Simple Thing, which explores the relationship of yoga and the vagus nerve. “It’s bidirectional, which means it helps the body communicate with the brain, and the brain communicates with the body so that we can stay in balance.”
How the vagus nerve regulates stress
To understand the vagus nerve, you first need to know how it fits into the autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of things that happen automatically (like your heartbeat). “The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems,” explains Greg Hammer, MD, professor and researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
These two parts — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems — balance each other out. When switched on, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a “fight or flight response” that makes your heart race, sends blood to your limbs and readies your body to jump into action. The parasympathetic nervous system spurs the “rest and digest” response, which tells the body it’s safe to relax.
The parasympathetic nervous system is comprised of 75% vagal nerve fibers, so the vagus nerve is pretty much the whole ball game when it comes to your body’s ability to manage stress. In fact, research suggests that activating the vagus nerve may even help treat and prevent mental health problems that stem from stress, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “When the vagus nerve is fired, it causes slowing of our heart rate, lowering of our blood pressure and blood sugar and increased digestion,” Dr. Hammer explains. In other words, “it neutralizes the stress response.”
The top causes of a weak vagus nerve
The vagus nerve can sometimes falter, making it difficult for the body to combat the stress of day-to-day life. Here’s what can weaken the vagus over time:
Sure, you know that things like your hearing and vision are affected by your age. But it turns out your vagus nerve is, too. Research in the Journal of Clinical Monitoring and Computing found that older adults had a vagus nerve that was less able to regulate heart function than younger adults.
2. Chronic stress
The sympathetic nervous system evolved to help our ancestors flee predators, says Dr. Hammer. When the life-or-death danger passed, the vagus nerve triggered a swift return to calm. “In modern life, we activate the sympathetic nervous system just by our thoughts, even when there is no danger,” he explains. “We’re meeting with our boss, or we’re having a disagreement with our spouse, and we get this flood of adrenaline.” When your sympathetic nervous system is constantly triggered, it eventually weakens the vagus nerve. (Click through to see the best supplements to reduce stress, and to learn how stress can trigger GI upset like IBD.)
3. Less-than-healthy habits
While the occasional indulgent dessert or late night out with friends is a welcome treat, routinely skimping on things like sleep or healthy foods can hamper vagal function. “One of the things that causes the vagus nerve to not function optimally is when our lives get out of balance,” says Stern. Lack of sleep, unmanaged stress, ultra-processed foods, smoking and alcohol all take a toll on the vagus nerve, Dr. Hammer agrees. “If we do those things regularly, our body and nervous system aren’t able to stay in balance after a certain amount of time,” Stern explains. “The signaling function begins to break down, and things go awry.”
Signs of a faulty vagus nerve
Not sure if your vagus nerve is operating at peak function? These red flags can signal it’s time for a vagus nerve tune-up.
1. Chronic anxiety
When your sympathetic nervous system is constantly on, it can short-circuit the vagus nerve’s ability to trigger relaxation. “When you’re in a state of sympathetic nervous system activation, your heart rate goes up and you may get a little sweaty,” Dr. Hammer says. “Your mouth gets dry. You feel anxious. It’s maladaptive,” and it makes it hard for the vagus nerve to do its job.
2. Exhaustion and brain fog
If the sympathetic nervous system becomes dominant, it can hamper your sleep. The result: You feel tired and mentally foggy during the day. “Chronic stress and chronic inflammation can both cause brain fog,” says Dr. Hammer. Elevated levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, which occur with an under-active vagus nerve, contribute to disrupted sleep and exhaustion.
3. Poor digestion
Another common sign of a faulty vagus is GI upset. “The vagus nerve is the main driver for the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system,” says Dr. Hammer. “When active, it promotes gut function. When inactive, the ‘fight or flight’ system predominates, directing blood flow away from the gut and decreasing digestion.” Additionally, the vagus nerve can play a big role in digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The benefits of vagus nerve exercises
The immediate benefits of shifting into rest and digest mode are obvious. It eases tension. You can be more present with loved ones. It’s easier to fall asleep. But strengthening the vagus nerve offers long-term health benefits, too. For example, the vagus nerve helps the body tamp down inflammation, according to research in Frontiers in Psychiatry. That’s important, since inflammation contributes to conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
“Chronic stress predisposes people to malignancies and even degenerative brain diseases like dementia,” Dr. Hammer adds. The better shape your vagus nerve is in, the more protection you have against stress and inflammation.
3 easy vagus nerve exercises
Ready to strengthen your vagus? Good news: It’s easy thanks to simple exercises that activate the vagus nerve, Dr. Hammer says. “If you do 10 minutes a day, in about five weeks, you will start to see changes in the baseline resting state of your nervous system, which means that you’ll begin to change the way that you respond to stressful situations,” says Stern.
Here are three simple vagus nerve exercises to try:
1. Carotid sinus massage
Find your pulse on one side of your neck. This is one place where the vagus nerve passes through the body. Using gentle pressure, press down for about three minutes using your hand, a softball or grapefruit to apply pressure. “This activates the vagus nerve and lowers your blood pressure,” says Dr. Hammer. Need a visual guide? Check out Dr. Hammer’s video below.
2. Deep breathing
One of the easiest ways to strengthen your vagus nerve is through slow, controlled breathing exercises. Both Dr. Hammer and Stern recommend slowing your breathing to six breaths per minute.
“The six-breaths-per-minute cycle is the most widely studied breathing cycle,” Stern says. “It’s a breath ratio that can induce states of calm, healing and improving cardiac health.” Inhale through your nose for a count of three, pause for three, then exhale for a count of four Dr. Hammer says. Another option that Stern likes: Inhale for a count of four, then exhale through pursed lips for a count of six.
It sounds simple, but this effective technique is often overlooked. “Many people can go a whole day or maybe even more than a day without taking a deep breath,” says Dr. Hammer. “Slow, intentional breathing into your belly is just the most accessible, easiest way to activate the vagus nerve and get the benefits of diminishing adrenaline and cortisol levels in your body.” For more on this breathing technique, see Dr. Hammer’s video below.
3. Gargling or humming
The vagus nerve runs through your neck near the vocal cords, so it makes sense that gargling can activate the vagus nerve by stimulating the area. Simply take a sip of water, tilt your head back and gargle for 30 seconds. Spit the water out and repeat three times.
Not somewhere you can gargle? Humming can help, too! Hum an upbeat tune for a few minutes while you get dressed, wash the dishes or walk the dog. “Plus, how anxious or bummed out can you be while you are humming your favorite song?” says Dr. Hammer.
More ways to stimulate the vagus nerve
Aside from the exercises above, there are other simple ways to activate the vagus nerve and spur relaxation. Three easy options:
1. Drape an ice pack over your face
One of the easiest and most effective ways to activate the vagus nerve is with cold exposure. Dr. Hammer recommends placing an ice pack over your face (making sure to cover your eyes and cheeks) for one minute. This activates what’s known as the diving reflex, which gently slows your breathing.
“After a very short time, this slows the heart rate and decreases all these acute stress responses,” Dr. Hammer says. He uses this method in clinical settings to get patients’ elevated heart rates down in a hurry. If you’re more ambitious, he also recommends cold water plunges or sinking into a cold bath. For more on this technique, see Dr. Hammer’s video below.
2. Think happy thoughts
Intentionally cultivating positive emotions is a good way to strengthen the vagus, says Dr. Hammer. “Think of three things for which you’re grateful before you go to sleep at night,” he recommends. Your heart rate, blood pressure and even blood sugar are, in part, determined by the balance of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, says Dr. Hammer. And positive emotions like gratitude tip the balance of the nervous system toward the parasympathetic and vagus nerve response, ushering in healing calm.
3. Consider a loving-kindness meditation
Stern suggests trying loving-kindness meditation to keep your vagus in good shape. In doing this, you mentally extend heartfelt wishes for wellbeing, happiness and freedom from suffering to yourself and others. This is done by silently repeating phrases like “May I be happy,” “May you be healthy” and “May they be safe.” (Click through to see more benefits of a loving kindness meditation).
How it works: “Have you ever experienced that when you are anxious, you can calm yourself by thinking of something positive, like how much you love your baby or your dog?” Dr. Hammer says. “The reason these thoughts of love help relax you and slow your heart rate is that they quiet your sympathetic nervous system and allow your vagus nerve to work.”
For more ways to soothe chronic stress:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.