The vagus nerve is critical to optimal health, no matter what your issues are.
Introduction to The Vagus Nerve
In people with fatigue, food sensitivities, anxiety, gut problems, brain fog, and depersonalization, the vagus nerve is almost always at play. These people have lower vagal tone, which means a lower ability to perform its functions.
The only question is which aspect of the vagus nerve is malfunctioning and to which extent it is the problem vs. other aspects of your biology.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, referred to as the rest-and-digest system. It’s not the only nerve in the parasympathetic system, but it’s by far the most important one because it has the most far-reaching effects.
The word vagus means “wanderer,” because it wanders all over the body to various important organs.
The vagus nerve reaches the brain, gut (intestines, stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, fertility organs (female), neck (pharynx, larynx, and esophagus), ears, and tongue.
Given the importance of the vagus nerve to the gut (and other organs), when it’s not working properly, it will cause digestive disorders including dyspepsia, gastroparesis, esophageal reflux, ulcerative colitis, anorexia, and bulimia, to name a few (R).
The Vagus Nerve and Health
In the brain, the vagus helps control anxiety and depression.
In the gut, it increases stomach acidity, digestive juice secretion, and gut flow. Since the vagus nerve is important for increasing gut flow (motility), having less vagus activation will increase your IBS risk, which is a result of slower flow (R).
Stimulating the vagus nerve increases the release of histamine by stomach cells, which helps release stomach acid (R). So, low stomach acidity is usually, in part, a vagus nerve problem. By releasing intrinsic factor, the vagus nerve is important to help you absorb vitamin B12 (R).
In the gallbladder, it helps release bile, which can help you get rid of toxins and break down fat.
The vagus nerve promotes general kidney function. It helps with glucose control. The vagus nerve also increases blood flow (R), which improves blood filtration. Vagus activation also releases dopamine in the kidneys, which helps excrete sodium (R) and, thereby, lower blood pressure.
The vagus nerve goes to the bladder (R). A side effect of its stimulation is urinary retention (R), which means that less vagus stimulation can cause you to urinate frequently. Indeed, many of my clients complain about frequent urination (also due to low vasopressin, low aldosterone, and high cortisol).
In the spleen, it can reduce inflammation (R). Note that vagus activation will reduce inflammation in all target organs (by releasing acetylcholine) (R), but when it activates in the spleen the response will probably be more systemic.
It helps control fertility and orgasms in women by connecting to the cervix, uterus, and vagina. Women can actually experience orgasms simply from the vagus nerve (R).
In the tongue, it helps control taste and saliva; while in the eyes, it helps release tears (R).
A friend asked me what’s the connection between having to go to the bathroom and congestion. It’s likely the vagus nerve because it controls both mucous production and colon flow.
Satiety and relaxation following a meal are in part caused by activation of the vagus nerve transmission to the brain in response to food intake (R).
The vagus nerve explains why a person may cough when tickled on the ear, such as when trying to remove ear wax with a cotton swab (R).
Vagus nerve stimulation helps people with tinnitus because of its connection to the ear.
The vagus nerve is important in conditions like GERD, not only because it controls stomach acidity, but also because it controls the esophagus.
The vagus nerve is largely responsible for the mind-body connection since it goes to all the major organs (except adrenal and thyroid glands).
It’s intimately tied to how we connect with one another — it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact, and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding (R).
Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior (R).
Vagus activity of a child can be affected by their mother. Infants had lower vagus activity with mothers who were depressed, angry, or anxious during pregnancy (R).
Som studies suggested that the vagus nerve is important for getting in the mental state of flow. It’s believed that the combination of sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and vagus activation creates the right environment for a flow state (R).
The Vagus Nerve and Sickness Behavior
Sickness behavior (fatigue, sleepiness, depression, anxiety, appetite loss, pain, lowered motivation, and failure to concentrate) is blocked when the vagus nerve is taken out. IL-1b mediates the activation of this nerve causing sickness behavior (R).
Genetics/Testing For Vagus Activity
SelfDecode, the best genetic analyzer for 23andme and ancestry data, analyzes some SNPs that modulate vagal activity.
One such SNP (rs6330) is associated with low vagal activity and increased anxiety. You must have your genome sequenced (preferably by 23andme) and sign up to see if you have this variation of the gene.
Potential Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction
- Obesity and Weight Gain (R)
- Brain problems
- Chronic Fatigue
- High or Low Heart Rate
- Difficulty Swallowing
- Gasteroparesis, also known as delayed gastric emptying,
- Heart Burn
- B12 Deficiency
- Chronic Inflammation
Conditions Which Vagal Nerve Activation Can Help
Since the vagus nerve is associated with many different functions and brain regions, research shows positive effects of vagal stimulation on a variety of conditions, including but not limited to (R):
- Anxiety Disorders
- Heart disease
- Alcohol addiction
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic heart failure
- Memory disorders
- Mood disorders
- Cancer (R)
- Bad blood circulation (R)
- Leaky gut
- Severe mental diseases
The Vagus Nerve and Hormones
Acetylcholine is the main vagal neurotransmitter. This means that it will have many of the effects of vagal stimulation because this is how the vagus nerve stimulates various organs.
Alpha GPC is the best way to increase acetylcholine. However, I don’t know if it will get to where it needs to go and in the proper dosage, so I doubt it’s as good as vagus stimulation.
32 Ways to Stimulate The Vagus Nerve
Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight-or-flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system increases, which is mediated by the vagus nerve (R).
Any kind of acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve activation (R).
You can dip your face in cold water to start (R).
I graduated and now take fully cold showers, expose myself to cold, and drink cold water.
2) Singing or Chanting
Singing increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV) (R).
Humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing, and upbeat energetic singing all increase HRV in slightly different ways (R).
I do Om chanting in my infrared sauna (R).
Singing initiates the work of a vagal pump, sending relaxing waves through the choir (R).
Singing at the top of your lungs works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus.
Energetic singing activates your sympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve and conducts towards getting in a flow state (R).
Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increases HRV and vagus function (R).
Singing has been found to increase oxytocin (R).
A 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a control group who did walking exercises. The study found increased thalamic GABA levels, which were associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety (R).
There are two types of meditation that can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Loving-kindness meditation increases vagal tone, as measured by heart rate variability (R).
5) Positive Social Relationships
In a study, participants were instructed to sit and think compassionately about others by silently repeating phrases like “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease,” and keep returning to these thoughts when their minds wandered (R).
Compared to the controls, the meditators showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity, and hope after the class. These emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others and to an improvement in vagal function, as seen by heart-rate variability (R).
Simply meditating, however, didn’t always result in a more toned vagus nerve. The change only occurred in meditators who became happier and felt more socially connected. Those who meditated just as much but didn’t report feeling any closer to others showed no change in the tone of the vagus nerve (R).
6) Breath Deeply and Slowly
Deep and slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve (R).
Your heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called “baroreceptors.”
These specialized neurons detect your blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain (NTS), which goes on to activate your vagus nerve that connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate. The result is a lower fight-or-flight activation (sympathetic) and more rest-and-digest (parasympathetic).
The baroreceptors can be more or less sensitive. The more sensitive they are, the more likely they are going to fire and tell your brain that the blood pressure is too high and it’s time to activate the vagus nerve to lower it.
Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out, increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation, which lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety by reducing your sympathetic nervous system and increasing your parasympathetic system (R).
For an average adult, breathing around 5-6 breaths per minute can be very helpful (R).
Tip: You need to breathe from your belly and slowly. That means when you breathe in, your belly should expand or go out. When you breathe out your belly should cave in. The more your belly expands and the more it caves in, the deeper you’re breathing.
As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. Many studies show the health benefits of laughing (R).
It seems like laughter is capable of stimulating the vagus nerve.
A study done on yoga laughter found increased HRV in the laughter group (R).
There are various case reports of people fainting from laughter, which may be from the vagus nerve/parasympathetic system being stimulated too much.
For example, fainting can come after laughter, urination, coughing, swallowing or bowel movement, all of which are helped along by vagus activation (R).
Laughter is also sometimes a side effect of vagus nerve stimulation (R).
Studies have shown that reciting the rosary prayer increases vagus activation. Specifically, it enhances cardiovascular rhythms such as diastolic blood pressure and HRV (R).
Studies also found that the reading of one cycle of the rosary takes approximately 10 seconds and thus causes readers to breathe at 10-second intervals (includes both in and out breath), which increases HRV and therefore vagus function (R).
Magnetic fields are capable of stimulating the vagus nerve (R).
Studies have found that PEMF can increase heart rate variability and increase vagus stimulation (R).
I use a pulsed magnetic stimulator called ICES on my gut and brain, which stimulates my vagus nerve increasing my appetite and stimulating me.
I recommend using this on your gut, brain, and side of your neck.
My gut flow increases and inflammation is reduced everywhere when I put this on my gut.
At first, I didn’t understand how it can have systemic effects if I placed it on my gut, but the vagus nerve must be the main reason given that it’s stimulated by magnets.
10) Breathing Exercises
Breathing in and out with resistance will likely stimulate your vagus nerve better –kind of like jogging with a backpack.
A breathing exercise is to breathe out as hard as you can until it’s really uncomfortable and until you notice how awake you are. I haven’t seen studies on this, but I suspect it will help with your vagus nerve.
The gut nervous system connects to the brain through the vagus nerve. There is increasing evidence pointing to an effect of the gut microbiota on the brain.
Mild exercise stimulates gut flow. This is mediated by the vagus nerve, which means that exercise also stimulates it (R).
Massaging certain areas like your carotid sinus (located on your neck) can stimulate the vagus nerve. This helps reduce seizures (R).
Foot massages can also increase vagal activity and heart rate variability, while lower your heart rate and blood pressure (R). All of these decrease heart disease risk.
Indeed, many anecdotal reports show that intermittent fasting benefits heart rate variability.
When you fast, part of the decrease in metabolism is mediated by the vagus nerve.
Specifically, the vagus detects a decline in blood glucose and a decrease of mechanical and chemical stimuli from the gut. This increases the vagus impulses from the liver to the brain (NTS), which slows the metabolic rate (R).
Fasting can increase the activity in the subdiaphragmatic vagus, which can increase an unfavorable sensitivity to pain in animals (R).
15) Sleep or Lay on Your Right Side
Studies have found that laying on your right side increases heart rate variability and vagal activation more than being on other sides. Laying on your back leads to the lowest vagus activation (R).
16) Tai Chi
Tai chi increases heart rate variability and, therefore, very likely vagus activation (R).
The vagus nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle.
Gargling contracts these muscles, which activates the vagus nerve and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract.
Before you swallow water, gargle it first.
18) Seafood (EPA and DHA)
I’m a big proponent of fish in the lectin avoidance diet.
I’ve taken ten pills of fish oil as a megadosing experiment and my heart rate went from 60 to 40. So, in my self-experiments, fish oil does indeed lower heart rate, which is probably mediated, in part, by the vagus nerve.
Mice who had their vagus taken out didn’t have the appetite-reducing effects of oxytocin (R).
21) Tongue Depressors
Tongue depressors stimulate the gag reflex.
Some say that gag reflexes are like doing push-ups for the vagus while gargling and singing loudly are like doing sprints.
Traditional acupuncture points stimulate the vagus nerve (R).
In particular, acupuncture to the ear stimulates the vagus nerve (R).
Acupuncture is powerful enough that a man died after vagus nerve stimulation from too low of a heart rate (R).
23) 5-HTP (Serotonin)
Serotonin is capable of activating the vagus nerve through various receptors.
So, serotonin has some mixed effects, but overall it should stimulate the vagus nerve.
You can take 5-htp to increase serotonin.
24) Chew Gum (CCK)
CCK ability to reduce food intake and appetite is dependent on the vagus nerve impulse to and from the brain (R).
Chewing gum helps increase CCK release.
25) Eat Fiber (GLP-1)
Fiber is the best way to increase GLP-1.
26) Coffee Enemas
Enemas are like sprints for your vagus nerve. Expanding the bowel increases vagus nerve activation, as is done with enemas.
27) Coughing or Tensing the Stomach Muscles
When you bear down as if to make a bowel movement, you stimulate your vagus nerve. That’s why you might feel relaxed after a bowel movement.
So if you use these bowel movement muscles, it will stimulate your vagus nerve (R).
28) Thyroid Hormones/T3 Are Normal
29) Sun (MSH)
30) Carbohydrates (insulin)
Orexin stimulates the vagus nerve from the brain, which promotes gut flow (R).
Orexin A can stimulate the pancreas from the brain (R).
Orexin is capable of increasing glucose tolerance or insulin sensitivity via the liver vagus nerve (R).
Ghrelin stimulates the pancreas from the brain via the vagus (R).
CRH has variable effects on the vagus nerve. It decreases its activity from the brain to the heart. Vagus nerve activation will slow the heart rate, but CRH inhibits this and increases heart rate (R).
CRH stimulates the vagus impulse from the brain (area postrema) to the colon (by activating the dorsal nucleus of vagi, via cholinergic transmission) (R).
Monosodium Glutamate or MSG increases gut flow in dogs, which is mediated by the vagus nerve (R).
How Does The Vagus Nerve Malfunction?
So your vagus nerve system can be messed up in 3 main ways: Communication from an organ to the brain (via glutamate), communication within the brain (such as from the NTS or to the DMV), or communication from the brain to other areas of the body like the heart, liver, and gut (R).
The Vagus Nerve and the Circadian Rhythm
Signals from the circadian control center (SCN) are often transmitted by the vagus nerve.
For example, mucin production by your gut and lungs has a rhythm that’s controlled from your SCN (R).
How to Inhibit the Vagus Nerve
Capsaicin is the most potent way to inhibit the vagus nerve.
Vagus Nerve Terms
You can stimulate or inhibit the vagus nerve in two ways. First, the vagus nerve impulse (activation) can flow from the brain to the rest of the body or from the body to the brain.
When it flows from the brain it’s called a “vagal efferent.” When it flows from other parts of the body to the brain, it’s called a “vagal afferent.” I don’t use these terms for simplicity.
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