The vagus nerve is a complex nerve that runs throughout the body and sends signals to and from different organs and body parts. This nerve can be stimulated through specific exercises, which may improve well-being, digestion, and sleep, among others.
What is the vagus nerve?
In Latin, the word 'vagus' means 'wandering,' and the vagus nerve is often referred to as the 'wandering nerve' in medicine.
The vagus nerve is one of the longest and most complex nerves in the parasympathetic nervous system. This nerve regulates different involuntary functions. It carries sensory and motor signals between the brain and organs, such as the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, and bowels.
The vagus nerve carries the signals, such as pain, pressure, and temperature, to and from the brain and helps the brain monitor and regulate various bodily functions. It also influences these functions by releasing a neurotransmitter that helps control the activity of the organs.
Why should you do vagus nerve stimulation exercises?
Vagus nerve stimulation exercises can benefit your overall health and well-being.
- Better heart health. The vagus nerve influences heart rate variability (HRV), an indicator of cardiovascular health. Regular vagus nerve stimulation can promote higher HRV, which is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and improved cardiac function.
- Enhanced immune function. The vagus nerve plays a part in overall immune function, and stimulating it can help regulate immune response time. This might reduce the risk of autoimmune conditions and promote faster recovery after illness.
- Increased cognitive performance. Vagus nerve stimulation can potentially enhance cognitive function and increase attention and focus. Some individuals report improved memory, concentration, and mental clarity by activating the vagus nerve regularly.
Vagus nerve exercises for anxiety and overall well-being
You can incorporate vagus nerve stimulation into your life in many budget-friendly and fun ways. Each has proven benefits to promote well-being and mental health.
Aerobic exercises, such as running, brisk walking, swimming, or biking can stimulate the vagus nerve. These exercises promote the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, including the vagus nerve, which can improve your overall well-being.
Another form of exercise is yoga. Yoga combines physical postures and breathing control, which can enhance vagus nerve activity. Practicing deep breathing and stretching activates the vagus nerve and promotes relaxation.
The vagus nerve is closely linked to the body’s relaxation response. Slow, deep breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation. This activation, in turn, stimulates the vagus nerve helps regulate heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, and can promote better sleep.
Breathing exercises also help promote diaphragm engagement. When you breathe deeply into the belly, your diaphragm, a muscle in the abdomen, engages fully.
Cold water immersion
Cold water immersion, such as a cold bath, shower, or ice bath, can promote vagus nerve stimulation and offer many benefits for the body.
Cold water activates a cold-induced reflex. This reflex can decrease heart rate and blood pressure and increase HRV, which improves stress response. Moreover, cold water immersion might help alleviate anxiety.
If you plan to try cold water immersion, it is best to contact a healthcare practitioner beforehand, as it can negatively impact some people with underlying health conditions.
Meditation and mindfulness practices help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, including the vagus nerve.
Meditation and mindfulness also promote the practice of body scanning, a technique in which you sit silently and mindfully notice different body parts, starting at the toes. This can take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes and can help promote relaxation and stimulate the vagus verve.
Singing, humming, and chanting involve deep breathing and vocalization, known to stimulate the vagus nerve. These activities engage the muscles in the throat and vocal cords.
Such activities can be done almost anywhere, from a deep yoga Om chanting to singing with friends; stimulating the vagus nerve through the vocal cords and throat is a fun and effective way to increase mental well-being.
How else can you stimulate the vagus nerve at home?
Vagus nerve stimulators (VNS) devices are designed to deliver electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve. Invasive vagus nerve devices are typically prescribed by a medical doctor and implanted under the skin's surface to treat conditions such as epilepsy or treatment-resistant depression.
There are, however, great over-the-counter VNS devices used for relaxation and stress reduction at home; these are called non-invasive VNS devices and can be purchased online or in health and wellness stores.
This non-invasive VNS typically consists of a handheld device that delivers a mild electrical impulse to the vagus nerve through the skin. The Pulsetto device, for example, is worn around the neck. The stimulation is usually delivered through electrodes or pads on the skin’s surface. The device generates electrical impulses to mimic the natural signals transmitted by the vagus nerve.
Non-invasive VNS devices are intended for home use and can help alleviate stress, induce relaxation, and aid in better sleep.
What benefits can you expect when doing vagus nerve exercises?
Many proven benefits from vagal nerve stimulation can be achieved through exercises or non-invasive VNS therapy.
The vagus nerve is a key component in the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation. By engaging the vagus nerve, you can initiate a calming and stress-reducing effect that will help improve mood and anxiety. A number of studies show that stimulating the vagus nerve can help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, and invasive devices have even been used in medicine to treat severe depression for those resistant to medications.
Stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to provide a better night’s sleep. You can improve mood and sleep quality by stimulating the vagus nerve before sleeping. Adding stretching and mindfulness practices before bed can be beneficial to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote a better night's sleep.
Vagus nerve stimulation may be a potential therapeutic tool for those with bloating, indigestion, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Vagus nerve stimulation can support the digestive process by increasing gastric acids, helping with nutrition absorption. Stress plays a large part in elevating symptoms of IBS, and stimulating the vagus nerve to reduce stress and anxiety can substantially reduce symptoms related to digestion.
Migraines are characterized by severe headaches and are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as visual disturbances and sensitivity to light and sound. Vagus nerve exercises and stimulation techniques have shown promise in providing relief for those suffering from migraines by calming the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing the pain of migraine headaches.
Is it possible to stretch the vagus nerve?
Stretching the vagus nerve directly is not possible because it is a cranial nerve that links the brain to organs and systems of the body. Unlike peripheral nerves, the vagus nerve is not easily accessible for direct stretching. However, some studies indicate activation of the vagus nerve through neck stretching can promote vagus nerve stimulation.
Gentle neck stretching, such as tilting your head to the side, forward, and back slowly and carefully, can promote relaxation and relieve tight muscles causing tension in the neck and shoulders.
Can vagus nerve exercises rewire your brain?
Vagus nerve exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, and other techniques noted above, can stimulate the vagus nerve and profoundly impact well-being. Though, you cannot directly 'rewire' your brain.
Stimulating the nervous system might reduce stress, help relax, and increase well-being. Although stimulating the vagus nerve may not rewire the brain, it might promote better habits and stimulate creativity and learning.
The vagus nerve is a complex nerve that runs the length of the body and supports a number of bodily functions. It’s beneficial to include vagal nerve exercises into your daily routine to promote an overall sense of well-being and better health. This can be achieved through physical exercise, mindfulness and meditation, cold immersion, breathing exercises, and even singing. There are also beneficial devices, such as the non-invasive VNS device, that can be used at home to promote vagal nerve stimulation quickly and effectively.
Can you heal the vagus nerve with exercises?
Vagus nerve exercises can indirectly support the vagus nerve and promote well-being. However, exercise cannot 'heal' the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a complex cranial nerve that extends throughout the body, and exercise does not influence the physical structure.
Will vagal nerve exercises improve my anxiety?
Vagal nerve exercises might help alleviate symptoms of anxiety in some people. Stimulating the vagus nerve through exercise can profoundly impact anxiety relief. Although most people do experience a positive impact on their mental health because of vagal nerve exercises, everyone is different. If you experience anxiety, talking to a medical doctor or therapist is a good idea.
What is the most effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve?
There is no one-size-fits-all for vagus nerve simulation, and each person may experience different levels of effectiveness. The most common methods of vagus nerve stimulation are deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness, cold exposure, physical exercise, and at-home vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) devices. These methods are helpful to induce relaxation, promote better sleep, and increase overall mental well-being.
The vagus nerve is a long and complex nerve that runs throughout the body to connect organs and body parts to the brain. This nerve carries many signals to and from the brain to promote well-being.
Several beneficial exercises may promote vagus nerve stimulation, such as aerobic exercise, meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, cold water immersion, and singing.
Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS) devices have shown to be effective in vagal nerve stimulation, which can improve overall well-being.
Although you cannot rewire your brain with vagus nerve exercises, practicing them can likely improve mood, sleep quality, mental health, well-being, and digestion.
- JMIR Form Research. Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial.
- Journal of Personalized Medicine. Application of Noninvasive Vagal Nerve Stimulation to Stress-Related Psychiatric Disorders.