What is the Vagus Nerve?
Named after the Latin word for ‘wanderer’, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body and is vitally important as it connects the brain with several major organs in the body. It's also the main nerve that makes up the body's parasympathetic nervous system.
This is the system that controls functions like digestion and heart rate and works alongside the sympathetic nervous system which is network of nerves that gets activated in response to stress. It's this that helps mount the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. When the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into action, it’s often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ phase. When this relaxation phase is triggered, our vagal tone increases which results in a slower heart rate, calmer breathing and a calmer nervous system in general. According to a 2010 study, researchers found a positive correlation between a high vagal tone and positive emotions and overall good health.
The good news is even if our sympathetic system threatens to overwhelm us, there are ways that we can stimulate our vagus nerve and help ourselves move out of a high state of stress and into a less anxious one. Here’s how.
Focus on belly breathing
Breathing so that you expand your abdomen each time, known as diaphragmatic breathing, is essentially when your diaphragm contracts on the inhale and relaxes on the exhale, and it’s this type of breathing directly stimulates the vagus nerve
Try some cold-water immersion
Exposing your body to cold temperatures, such as wild swimming or even a cold shower is a great way to increase vagal tone. Although your body will initially respond with a stress response, as your body adjusts to cold temperatures, parasympathetic activity increases and sympathetic activity declines.
Start singing (or gargling)
Belting out your favourite tune in the morning won’t just help wake you up, it’ll also activate your vagus nerve. If you’re not a fan of singing, you might be surprised to hear that gargling with water can have the same effect. That’s because any kind if physical reverberation of your vocal chords (yogic chants will also work) activates the vagus nerve and help trigger a parasympathetic response in the body.