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30 Factors That Can Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Nicole Craven, MD, Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:

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Vagus Nerve

Good vagal nerve function is crucial for optimal health in everyone, and often does not function well in many chronic disease states. In this post, we will review the signs of low vagal tone, how to increase tone with stimulation, and how this will improve your health.

30 Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

1) Cold

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 [1].

Any kind of acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve activation [2].

You can dip your face in cold water to start. I’ve graduated and now take fully cold showers, expose myself to cold, and drink cold water.

Cold showers and short-term cold exposure stimulate your vagus nerve and rest-and-digest system.

2) Singing or Chanting

Singing increases Heart Rate Variability (HRV) [3].

Humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing, and upbeat energetic singing all increase HRV in slightly different ways [3].

I do Om chanting in my infrared sauna.

Singing initiates the work of a vagal pump, sending relaxing waves through the choir [3].

Singing at the top of your lungs works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus.

Energetic singing activates both your sympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve, which helps to get into a flow state [3].

Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increases HRV and vagus function [3].

Singing has been found to increase oxytocin [4].

Chanting, energetic singing, and choral singing stimulate your vagus nerve, protect your heart, and help you get into a flow state.

3) Yoga

Yoga increases vagus nerve and parasympathetic system activity in general [5, 6].

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 are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety [5].

4) Meditation

Studies show there are at least two types of meditation that can stimulate the vagus nerve.

Loving-kindness meditation increases vagal tone, as measured by heart rate variability, and Om chanting [7].

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.

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.

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.

Meditation and social connection stimulate your vagus nerve and promote joy, serenity, and compassion.

6) Deep and Slow Breathing

Deep and slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve.

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).

Baroreceptors can be variably 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 [8].

For an average adult, breathing around 5-6 breaths per minute can be very helpful.

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.

Deep and slow breathing boosts your vagus nerve activity, relaxes you, and drops your blood pressure. Try to breathe from your belly and get 5-6 breaths per minute.

7) Laughter

As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. Many studies show the health benefits of laughing [9].

It seems like laughter is capable of stimulating the vagus nerve, and so laughter therapy is something that can be powerful for health.

A study done on yoga laughter found increased HRV (heart rate variability) in the laughter group [10].

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 movements, all of which are helped along by vagus activation [11].

There are case reports of people passing out from laughter who have a rare syndrome (Angelman’s) that’s associated with increased vagus stimulation [12, 13].

Laughter is also sometimes a side effect of vagus nerve stimulation [14].

A good bout of laughter is good for cognitive function and protects against heart disease. It also increases beta-endorphins and nitric oxide and benefits the vascular system [9, 15].

Laughing stimulates your vagus nerve and has many health benefits, such as heart disease prevention. Overdoing it, though, may cause fainting in rare cases.

8) Prayer

Studies have shown that reciting the rosary prayer increases vagus activation. Specifically, it enhances cardiovascular rhythms such as diastolic blood pressure and HRV [16].

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 [3].

Prayer slows and deepens breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve and protects the heart.

9) PEMF

Magnetic fields are capable of stimulating the vagus nerve. Studies have found that Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) therapy can increase heart rate variability and increase vagus stimulation [17].

I use a pulsed magnetic stimulator called ICES in my gut and brain, which stimulates my vagus nerve increasing my appetite and stimulating me.

I recommend using this in 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.

PEMF therapy may boost vagus nerve activity, thus promoting heart health, reducing inflammation, and supporting digestion.

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.

11) Probiotics

The gut’s 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.

In an animal study, mice supplemented with the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus experienced various positive changes in GABA receptors that were mediated by the vagus nerve [18]. GABA receptors in the brain positively regulate mood; a clear link between vagus nerve gut stimulation by L. rhamnosus and enhanced GABA activity supports the growing body of evidence that probiotics may have positive health effects.

12) Exercise

Mild exercise stimulates gut flow and this flow is mediated by the vagus nerve, which means that exercise also stimulates the vagus nerve [19].

13) Massage

Massaging certain areas like your carotid sinus (located on your neck) can stimulate the vagus nerve and may help reduce seizures [20]. (note: massaging a carotid sinus is not recommended at home due to possible fainting)

A pressure massage can activate the vagus nerve. These massages help infants gain weight by stimulating the gut and this is largely mediated by vagus nerve activation [21, 22].

Foot massages can also increase vagal activity and heart rate variability while lowering your heart rate and blood pressure [23].

All of these decrease the risk of heart disease.

Neck, foot, and pressure massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, supporting digestion and heart health.

14) Fasting

Intermittent fasting and reducing calories both increase heart rate variability in animals, which is a marker of vagal tone [24].

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 [25].

Hormones such as NPY increase while CCK and CRH decrease during fasting [25].

When we eat, the opposite happens. Satiety-related stimulatory signals from the gut contribute to increased sympathetic activity and stress-responsiveness (higher CRH, CCK, and lower NPY) [25].

The vagus nerve may make you more sensitive to estrogen. In female rats, fasting increases the number of estrogen receptors in certain parts of the brain (NTS and PVN), mediated by the vagus nerve [26].

Fasting slows down your metabolism by promoting vagus nerve activity.

15) Sleeping or Laying 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 [27].

Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Check out my book, Biohacking Insomnia so you can finally go to sleep quickly at night and wake up feeling refreshed.

16) Tai Chi

Tai chi increases heart rate variability and, therefore, very likely vagus activation [28].

17) Gargling

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.

EPA and DHA increase heart rate variability and lower heart rate. This indicates that they stimulate the vagus nerve [29].

I’ve taken 10 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.

19) Oxytocin

Oxytocin increases vagal nerve activity from the brain to the gut (in the brain and orally ingested), which induces relaxation and decreases appetite [30].

Mice who had their vagus taken out didn’t exhibit the appetite-reducing effects of oxytocin [30].

20) Zinc

Zinc increases vagus stimulation in rats fed a zinc-deficient diet for 3 days [31]. It’s a very common mineral that most people don’t get enough of.

21) Tongue Depressors

Tongue depressors stimulate the gag reflex.

Some say that gag reflexes are like doing push-ups for the vagus nerve while gargling and singing loudly are like doing sprints.

22) Acupuncture

Traditional acupuncture points stimulate the vagus nerve, especially those on the ears [32, 33].

Acupuncture is so powerful that a man died after vagus nerve stimulation from too low of a heart rate [34].

23) Serotonin

Serotonin is capable of activating the vagus nerve through various receptors: 5HT1A, 5-HT2, 5-HT3, 5-HT4, 5-HT6 [35, 36, 37, 38].

On the other hand, 5-HT7 receptors reduce vagus activation [39, 40].

So, serotonin has some mixed effects, but overall it should stimulate the vagus nerve. You can take 5-HTP to increase serotonin.

24) Chewing Gum

CCK (a gut hormone) directly activates vagal impulses in the brain [41].

The ability of CCK to reduce food intake and appetite is dependent on the vagus nerve impulse to and from the brain [42].

Chewing gum helps increase CCK release.

25) Eating Fiber

GLP-1 is a satiating hormone that stimulates vagus impulses to the brain, slowing the gut movements and making you feel fuller [43].

Fiber is a good way to increase GLP-1 [44].

26) Enemas

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 the bowel movement muscles, it will stimulate your vagus nerve.

28) Thyroid Hormones

In rats, thyroid hormones (T3) increased appetite through activating the vagus nerve [45].

29) Sun Exposure

Alpha-MSH prevents damage from a stroke in rats via activating the vagus nerve, which suppresses inflammation [46, 47].

Alpha-MSH injection in the brain (DMV) moderately excites the vagus nerve in some conditions [48].

Sun exposure naturally boosts alpha-MSH [49].

30) Alpha-GPC (Acetylcholine)

While I haven’t seen any studies that alpha-GPC stimulates the vagus nerve itself, acetylcholine is the main vagal neurotransmitter. This means that it will have many of the effects of vagal stimulation.

Alpha-GPC is a good way to increase acetylcholine, but it’s not clear whether it will stimulate your vagus nerve.

Inhibitors

1) Carbohydrates (Insulin)

Insulin suppresses the part of the vagus nerve innervating the liver, and causes inflammatory molecules to be released from the liver. High insulin levels seen in obesity compromise the normal function of the vagus nerve and therefore, the liver [50].

2) Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the most potent (and spicy) way to inhibit the vagus nerve.

3) Ginger

Ginger prevents nausea and vomiting by inhibiting the vagus nerve serotonin function in the digestive tract [51, 52].

High-carb meals, chili pepper (capsaicin), and ginger may suppress your vagus activity.

The Vagus Nerve and Hormones

Orexin

Orexin neurons are found in centers which control vagus nerve activation from the brain [53].

Orexin stimulates the vagus nerve from the brain, which promotes gut flow. It can stimulate the pancreas, too [54].

Orexin is capable of increasing glucose tolerance or insulin sensitivity via the liver vagus nerve [55].

On the other hand, orexin is capable of inhibiting the activation of the vagus nerve signals to the brain by competing with CCK [56].

Orexin can stimulate the vagus nerve in the brain, liver, and pancreas. As a result, it improves gut flow and insulin sensitivity.

Ghrelin

Ghrelin increases growth hormone and hunger by stimulating the vagus nerve signal from the brain to the gut, and this is abolished by capsaicin (in chili) [57].

Ghrelin stimulates the pancreas from the brain via the vagus [58].

Leptin

Vagal impulses to the brain are activated by leptin. Leptin potentiates the CCK-induced activation of the vagus nerve [59].

Leptin-resistant animals were hungrier since the vagus nerve became less sensitive to CCK [60].

However, another study found that leptin effect on the vagus signal doesn’t play a major role in food intake [61].

Leptin causes satiety by activating the vagus nerve, though this probably won’t affect your food intake.

CRH

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 [62].

CRH stimulates the vagus impulse from the brain to the colon (by activating the dorsal nucleus of vagi, via cholinergic transmission) [63].

Other

Vagus nerve stimulation normalizes an overactive nervous system (HPA axis) [64].

The vagus nerve can help reduce pain, and this is the mechanism by which estradiol reduces pain in certain circumstances [65].

Besides influencing the release of oxytocin, the vagus nerve is important for releasing testosterone. If it’s not working well, it could be the cause of low testosterone [3].

Testosterone can make people more aggressive, but this is not the case when the vagus nerve is functioning right [66].

Proper functioning of the vagus nerve is important for the production of GHRH (growth hormone-releasing hormone) and IGF-1 [67].

The vagus nerve can stimulate other hormones such as parathyroid hormone, which is important for the conversion of vitamin D3 to active vitamin D (1,25) [68].

Stimulation of the vagus nerve also produces the release of the vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), which is often low in people with CIRS/mold conditions [69].

NPY blocks some of the vagus nerve effects. NPY is an anti-anxiety and hunger increasing hormone, which prevents heart rate decrease from vagal stimulation [70].

By balancing certain hormones, vagus nerve stimulation may lower your pain and anxiety and support your gut and heart health.

Further Reading:

Takeaway

The vagus nerve plays a central role in your rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) nervous system. Optimal vagus nerve activity supports digestion, metabolism, mental health, and cognition.

Countless health disorders such as IBS, leaky gut, IBD, GERD, brain fog, anxiety, and depression may have their roots in impaired vagal tone. Digestive and metabolic hormones, sex hormones, and growth factors require vagus nerve stimulation to work.

You can stimulate the vagus nerve naturally with yoga, meditation, prayer, cold exposure, singing, fasting, and massage.

Nutrients and supplements that may boost your vagus nerve activity include probiotics, fiber, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and 5-HTP.

On the other hand, carb-rich meals, ginger, and chili pepper may suppress your vagus nerve.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen won the genetic lottery of bad genes. As a kid, he suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, and other issues that were poorly understood in both conventional and alternative medicine.Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a journey of self-experimentation and self-learning to improve his health--something that has since become known as “biohacking”. With thousands of experiments and pubmed articles under his belt, Joe founded SelfHacked, the resource that was missing when he needed it. SelfHacked now gets millions of monthly readers.Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, author and speaker. He is the CEO of SelfHacked, SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer.His mission is to help people gain access to the most up-to-date, unbiased, and science-based ways to optimize their health.
Joe has been studying health sciences for 17 years and has read over 30,000 PubMed articles. He's given consultations to over 1000 people who have sought his health advice. After completing the pre-med requirements at university, he founded SelfHacked because he wanted to make a big impact in improving global health. He's written hundreds of science posts, multiple books on improving health, and speaks at various health conferences. He's keen on building a brain-trust of top scientists who will improve the level of accuracy of health content on the web. He's also founded SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer, popular genetic and lab software tools to improve health.

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