Stimulating the Vagus Nerve – The Key to Relaxation & Calmness

Imagine you could turn stress into wellness, take your heart health to the next level, optimize your digestion, and even improve your emotional health — sounds too good to be true, right? By stimulating your vagus nerve, you can reap all these benefits. The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is a fascinating part of the human nervous system and much more than just an ordinary nerve. The vagus nerve is the key to your inner balance and optimizing your health. In this article, CARE will explain to you in detail exactly what the vagus nerve is, what role it plays in your body, and how you can harness its powers by stimulating it. Are you ready? Then, let's begin a journey through your nervous system!

Blog Author Jris Health Coach at CARE
Jris Bernet

Health Coach EN

Published in Activity
11 min read · Jan 08, 2024

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What Is the Vagus Nerve? — Unlock Your Self-Healing Power

The vagus nerve was first discovered and described by Italian physician and anatomist Gasparo Aselli (1581-1626).

Aselli, who is considered a pioneer in the anatomy of the lymphatic system, published his observations in a work titled "De lacteis venis" ("On the Lactiferous Ducts") in 1627. Even though Aselli's work was mainly concerned with the discovery and description of the lactiferous ducts (lymphatic vessels) and was not specifically aimed at the vagus nerve, his findings still contributed to the wider history of research on this nerve.

The vagus nerve is now known as the “wandering nerve” and is associated with self-healing. It is bipartite (split) and the longest of our twelve cranial nerves.

The vagus nerve plays a critical role in the autonomic nervous system and is involved in regulating the activities of almost all of our internal organs by carrying signals between your brain, organs, and digestive system. [1] It can almost be viewed as the “highway” of our body where the most important traffic takes place.

In addition to its autonomic functions for the regulation of our organs, the vagus nerve is also involved in the motor control of our larynx, pharynx, and upper esophagus.

What was the autonomic nervous system again? Let’s clarify.

The Autonomic Nervous System – Unconscious Regulation of Body Functions

Our autonomic nervous system regulates our bodily functions without any conscious intervention on our part. In a sense, the autonomic nervous system is like your body's "autopilot." It automatically regulates many vital functions – including your heartbeat, breathing, digestion, and stress responses.

The autonomic nervous system has two main branches: the parasympathetic nervous system (for relaxation, rest, and recovery) and the sympathetic nervous system (for activity and stress responses like "fight-or-flight"). [2]

The parasympathetic nervous system helps your body conserve energy and regenerate it, while the sympathetic nervous system gives you the energy and responsiveness you need in stressful situations. A balanced interaction between these two systems, sympathetic and parasympathetic, is crucial for your health and well-being. [2]

Thus, the vagus nerve is an important part of our autonomic nervous system and also the longest nerve inside it. And what does this long nerve exactly do? The vagus nerve is responsible for relaxation and regeneration in your body. It ensures that your body is put into a state of rest after being subjected to a stress response, most often transmitted by the sympathetic nervous system. [1]

The vagus nerve, as the predominant parasympathetic nerve, extends from your brain to most internal organs. Its name "vagus" comes from Latin and means "wandering" or "vagabonding." The name fits like a glove because the vagus nerve travels throughout the body, “hugging” our major life-sustaining organs, so to speak. [1]

The vagus nerve is no ordinary nerve – it is an impressive regulator that performs a variety of important functions. [1]

Let’s take a closer look at these functions.

The Functions of the Vagus Nerve — The Gateway to Rest & Relaxation

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The vagus nerve originates in the brain, more specifically in the brain stem, and extends all the way down into your abdomen. It branches out from the brain stem and sends numerous nerve fibers to the various organs and tissues in your body. It really is the vagabond among the nerves.

The vagus nerve has two main branches: the left and right vagus nerves. These branches control a wide range of body functions, including your heart rate, digestion, breathing, speech muscles, and more. [1]

Consequently, we would like to review some of the most important functions of the vagus nerve [1]:

1. Stress Management and Relaxation

One of the most important aspects of the vagus nerve is its role in stress regulation. It is the “resting nerve” of the body, responsible for promoting relaxation and rest. So, how does the nerve do that?

When you're stressed, the vagus nerve takes over and helps put your body in a relaxed state by reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for what's called the "fight-or-flight" response. By sending signals throughout your body, from the organs to the brain and vice versa, it helps lower your heart rate, relax your muscles, and reduce the release of stress hormones. [3]

2. Heart Health

The vagus nerve also plays a crucial role in regulating your heart rate. It controls what's called your “resting pulse” and helps stabilize your heart rhythm.

The vagus nerve regulates the heart rate by sending signals to the heart to slow the heartbeat. This is vital to your heart health and the prevention of cardiovascular disease. [3]

3. Digestion and Nutrient Absorption

The vagus nerve also significantly influences the function of your digestive tract. It does this by stimulating the production of gastric acid, controlling muscle contractions in the stomach and intestines, promoting the release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, and carrying signals to the brain to regulate the feeling of fullness.

Thus, it plays a critical role in breaking down and processing food, absorbing nutrients, and preventing inflammation in the digestive tract. A well-functioning vagus nerve is important for efficient digestion and maintaining digestive health. [4]

Naturally, a well-functioning digestive system is critical to providing your body with the nutrients it needs.

4. Emotional Stability and Mental Health

The vagus nerve is also connected to the limbic system, an area of the brain responsible for your emotions. Activating the vagus nerve can help stabilize emotions and mitigate the body's stress response. But how exactly does it do that?

The function of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation is based on the transmission of nerve signals between the vagus nerve and the brain. When emotions are experienced, the brain sends signals through the vagus nerve that trigger various responses in the body. These signals can affect the release of neurotransmitters, including those relevant to your mood and relaxation. [1] [2]

The vagus nerve can also modulate the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis or HTPA axis), which influences the stress response and aids in stress management. In addition, the vagus nerve is involved in the regulation of inflammation, which plays a role in depressive disorders, and it modulates heart rate variability, which reflects your body's adaptability to different emotional states. [1] [2]

All of these functions can have a significant impact on your emotional stability and mental health.

5. Anti-Inflammation

In recent years, research has revealed that the vagus nerve plays an important role in regulating inflammatory processes in the body.

The vagus nerve can modulate inflammatory responses in the body by influencing the release of anti-inflammatory substances and helping to limit inflammation. [1] [2]

6. Pain Relief

The vagus nerve can also relieve and influence your pain. For acute pain, its activation can reduce pain perception. For chronic pain, regular activation of the vagus nerve may even be a promising method of pain relief. [5]

As you can see, the functions and abilities of the vagus nerve are remarkable and versatile. So, it would come in handy if you can support and activate these functions, right?

Lo and behold, you can indeed stimulate your vagus nerve to take advantage of its excellent regulatory effect on your body. But how exactly does this work?

As pioneers in preventive health care, we consider it our duty to know about the latest methods and exercises that allow you and us to optimize your well-being.

During your Health Check-Ups, CARE is happy to give you personalized advice and exercises on how to further optimize your health through exercise and lifestyle adjustments like stimulating your vagus nerve.

To get you started, below we have summarized some health benefits that vagus nerve exercises can have on your well-being.

What Are the Effects of Vagus Nerve Exercises?

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Targeted activation of the vagus nerve offers the potential for each of us to optimize our well-being and mental health. Through skillful methods of stimulating the vagus nerve, we can enhance our overall health and activate various processes in our bodies.

This astonishing nerve has the potential to be our inner regulator for a healthier and happier life.

Therefore, we have curated nine efficient and simple vagus nerve exercises for you that can help activate your vagus nerve.

9 Exercises to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Self-Massage & Acupressure

Targeted pressure points on the body can help activate the vagus nerve. Gentle vagus nerve massage and pressure on specific points on your body, such as the ear or neck, can be helpful for stimulating your vagus nerve. [6]

Below, you can find some explicit examples of self-massage to stimulate your vagus nerve:

Massage the Mastoid Process Behind your Ear

Behind your ear is a bony prominence, just at the bottom of your skull, also called the mastoid process, which is part of your temporal bone. You can gently massage it or press it with your fingers in a circular motion to stimulate your vagus nerve.

Massage the Solar Plexus

The solar plexus is the area in the middle of the upper abdomen, just below the rib cage. You can apply gentle pressure to this area by massaging with your fingers in circular motions to stimulate your vagus nerve.

Pelvic Floor Exercises

The vagus nerve extends all the way “south” to the pelvic floor. You can activate it by performing pelvic floor exercises like Kegel exercises. This contracts and relaxes the pelvic floor, which can also stimulate your vagus nerve.

Breathing Techniques

Controlling your breathing is an effective way to stimulate your vagus nerve. For example, the 4-7-8 breathing technique, where you inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and then exhale for eight seconds, is a proven method. [6]

Turning Your Head

Turning your head can stimulate the vagus nerve, as this nerve runs in close proximity to important neck and throat structures like your carotid artery.

This neck movement can increase vagus nerve activity, which can reduce heart rate and promote relaxation.

Raise Eyebrows

Raising your eyebrows can stimulate the vagus nerve because it is connected to certain facial nerves, such as the trigeminal nerve. This connection can help activate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation functions in the body.

Singing

Singing can stimulate the vagus nerve because it requires controlled breathing and activates muscles in the throat and pharynx that are connected to the vagus nerve. [6] [7]

Singing can, therefore, be a pleasant and joyful method of promoting relaxation and inner balance.

Gargling

Gargling can stimulate the vagus nerve because it controls breathing and triggers the swallowing reflex. These are both mechanisms that are closely associated with the vagus nerve. [6]

Cold Exposure

A cold bath or shower can activate the vagus nerve and lower the heart rate. This contributes to relaxation and can be particularly useful after intense exercise. [8]

Yoga and Pilates

Practices such as yoga and Pilates are scientifically recognized ways to activate the vagus nerve. They promote relaxation and stress resistance because in yoga, you consciously breathe, turn your head, and touch and move various points of your body that are connected to the vagus nerve. [6]

Aerobic Exercise

Regular aerobic activity, such as running, swimming, or cycling, can strengthen the vagus nerve and improve heart health.

The aerobic exercises you can use to stimulate and activate your vagus nerve are numerous and varied. [6]

Another aspect we would like to discuss is the treatment of various diseases through vagus nerve stimulation, which is already FDA-approved.

Various studies have produced some interesting findings regarding the relationship between vagus nerve stimulation and the treatment of diseases. Diseases such as epilepsy, depression, and obesity are sometimes treated with VNS, which illustrates the enormous effect of vagus nerve stimulation on our nervous system and general health. [1] [7]

In the Focus of Research – Vagus Nerve Stimulation as a Form of Therapy

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Vagus Nerve Stimulation for People With Epilepsy

Vagus nerve stimulation is now an established treatment option for patients with difficult-to-treat epileptic seizures, especially those with pharmacoresistant epilepsy. [1]

An implanted stimulator sends regular electrical pulses to the vagus nerve, which can lead to a decrease in seizure frequency. Although the exact mechanism is not fully understood yet, the VNS is thought to reduce brain hyperexcitability.

Some research suggests that the vagus nerve may play a role in regulating inflammatory processes in the brain. Overactive inflammatory responses are associated with epileptic seizures, and activation of the vagus nerve may help to mitigate these inflammatory responses. [1] [7]

The vagus nerve can also affect brain activity, and vagus nerve stimulation could help reduce excessive excitability in certain brain regions involved in epilepsy. [1]

For some people with epilepsy, vagus nerve stimulation may not only reduce seizure frequency but also improve quality of life by helping to make seizures less intense and facilitating recovery afterward.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Depression

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) may also help people with severe depression. The stimulation works by supporting and improving the regulation of mood neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA. [1]

The VNS can promote neuroplasticity, meaning that stimulation can help change and adapt neural connections in the brain. This may contribute to an improvement in depressive symptoms.

In conclusion, vagus nerve stimulation is a promising and easy-to-perform method to benefit from the biological functions that the vagus nerve exerts on our body and overall health.

CARE will be happy to recommend some methods of stimulating your vagus nerve at your next Health Check-up, and we will consult you on the individual benefits you can achieve through VNS for yourself.

List of References

Blog Author Jris Health Coach at CARE

Jris Bernet

Health Coach EN at CARE Zurich

About the author

Jris is a health coach (nerd) and blog author at CARE. She has many years of experience as a coach for classic lifestyle conditions such as diabetes and women's health. She enjoys facilitating health challenges and courses. Fasting, keto, sleep, women's health and biohacking - Jris feels at home in these topics. When she's not working for CARE, she loves to listen to health podcasts and try out new (health) gadgets. Her credo: "It's never too late to start living a new lifestyle."