Vagus nerve massage is an effective way to improve vagal tone and promote improved mental health and well-being. Although there are several ways to stimulate and massage the vagus nerve, such as chest tapping, gargling, and cold exposure, not all of these techniques are effective and proven to work the same way.
The vagus nerve sends signals to and from the brain, such as pain, pressure, and temperature, and helps to regulate bodily functions.
Easy, at-home ways to improve vagal tone include massage, breathing exercises, cold therapy, and a healthy diet.
There are several proven benefits of stimulating your vagus nerve: headache and migraine relief, reducing stress and anxiety, improving digestion, and reducing inflammation.
What is the vagus nerve?
Your body is a highly complex network of trillions of cells and neurons. The vagus nerve works by sending signals to and from the brain, such as pain, pressure, and temperature, and helps regulate several bodily functions.
Information is sent to the brain and vice versa – relaying information from the brain to relax or lower the heart rate, for example. Due to stress and poor sleep quality, some people can experience decreased vagal tone; however, there are many ways to improve vagal tone, such as massage and stretching.
Ways in which you can stimulate the vagus nerve
There are several ways to stimulate the vagus nerve effectively to have a better state of well-being. Massaging pressure points, breathing exercises, cold therapy, and diet can all improve vagal tone.
Different pressure points throughout the body can stimulate and relax the vagus nerve. Pressure points can be found in the stomach, ear, feet, and neck and are easy to massage. These pressure points can be massaged in a circular and firm motion to allow activation of the nerve endings and promote a sense of relaxation through the parasympathetic nervous system.
There are several beneficial breathing exercises to improve vagal nerve tone, such as box, deep, and “belly breathing,” which involves taking breaths deep into the belly and holding it before releasing them. These exercises help to relax the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation.
This process can promote diaphragm engagement and stimulate the abdomen muscles. When this happens, it stimulates the vagus nerve and sends signals to the brain to slow down and relax.
Cold therapy, such as a cold bath, ice bath, or shower, has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve through cold reflux. This process is a psychological response to the cold water and happens without you knowing.
Cold water stimulates the vagus nerve to reduce heart rate variability (HRV) effectively, decrease blood pressure, and increase deep breathing. This process can relax the muscles, decrease anxiety, and improve overall physical and mental performance.
Stimulating the vagus nerve through diet involves incorporating certain foods and practices that can benefit healthy digestive habits. Foods high in Omega-3 and fiber can stimulate the digestive tract to work more effectively, stimulating the vagus nerve.
Mindful eating has also been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindfully think about the textures and taste of food, and chew food thoroughly before swallowing. This process can help digestion and stimulate the vagus nerve.
Vagus nerve massage benefits
Several benefits can be achieved through vagal never massage, to help promote overall well-being and better mental health.
For migraine relief
The vagus nerve is the primary connection between your brain and body. Migraines can be debilitating and those experiencing a migraine headache can also experience auras, light sensitivity, and severe pain in the head and neck. Massaging the vagus nerve by rubbing the temples, massaging down the back of the neck, or gently humming to massage the vocal cords are beneficial ways to ease the symptoms of a migraine.
Sometimes, however, migraine pain is too much, and using a non-invasive vagus nerve stimulator device (VNS) can help. Non-invasive VNS devices are now FDA-cleared for treating and preventing migraine and cluster headaches. It might be especially beneficial in cases where medications are ineffective in alleviating symptoms.
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For stress and anxiety relief
The vagus nerve is a crucial component of the human parasympathetic nervous system, which plays a key role in “rest and digest,” or a set of functions that enable us to relax after a stressful period. Therefore, the vagus nerve sends information from our brain to our heart and lungs that helps calm us when something causes stress and anxiety.
Stimulating your vagus nerve produces neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help regulate our moods, with serotonin and dopamine regulating the emotional state of happiness and well-being.
For better digestion
The vagus nerve improves digestion by up regulating your mechanical breakdown of solid food. This can help the body break down food before it enters the digestive tract.
If this process is under productive, there are several adverse side effects, such as acid reflux, bloating, flatulence, and even more severe concerns, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Optimal vagus nerve function and tone will help to regulate feelings of hunger and satisfaction before and after eating. This is a simple but essential concept regarding weight loss and overall health and performance of the digestive system.
For reduced inflammation
Some research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. It has been shown to reduce proinflammatory cytokine production and can calm the nervous system.
Moderate pressure massage has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, increase the movements of the digestive system, and enhance insulin secretion to help balance blood sugar levels.
Vagus nerve massage pressure points
Several pressure points are shown to help stimulate the vagus nerve when massaged. These include the stomach, ear, neck, and feet. This can be achieved by applying light to moderate pressure in certain areas to stimulate and activate a parasympathetic nervous response. This process is shown to help reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure to achieve better overall mental health and well-being.
How to massage the vagus nerve?
Massage techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve offer many benefits to the overall function of the vagus nerve. Here are a few ways to massage the vagus nerve to promote improved mental health and well-being.
Abdominal massage is simple and can take a few minutes to improve vagal tone. This process can be done by gently applying pressure below the breastbone and moving the hands down the abdomen. After this, you can take another five minutes to massage the abdominal area in a clockwise motion with light to moderate pressure. This can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, improve vagal tone, and help improve digestion.
It is best to perform this practice on an empty stomach and a few hours after eating. Starting slow and working up to a longer massage over time is the best way to achieve optimal stomach massage.
Three main pressure points can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system in the ear. These points are located at the ear's base, the cartilage at the ear's opening, and the top of the earlobe. It's essential to start with light pressure for a few minutes and rub the pressure points of each ear simultaneously.
This light pressure can stimulate the vagus never and provide a sense of relaxation once complete. Stimulating the vagus nerve through ear massage can decrease pain from migraine headaches.
Moderate pressure on the neck and shoulders can be applied in a circular motion to improve vagal nerve stimulation and promote relaxation.
Start by applying pressure at the bottom of the skull and work downward to the shoulders and out to the arms. This process can be repeated, and the pressure can be increased, depending on comfort level. Another way to activate the vagus nerve is by massaging between the shoulder muscles in a twist-style motion.
Another way to massage the neck is to apply gentle pressure on the sides of the neck where the carotid artery is located. This can be found by gently applying pressure to the neck to find the pulse. This process should be done lightly and only for a few minutes at a time.
The feet have thousands of nerves, and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system through the feet is relaxing and can be very beneficial.
Various vagus nerve reflexes (or acupressure points) are mapped out in different areas of the feet. Try giving yourself a foot massage by rotating your ankle, rubbing your sole in short strokes, and gently stretching your toes back and forth to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Another way to achieve foot massage is by mindfully applying light pressure between the toes and the base of the heel. This process can stimulate the vagus never and promote relaxation.
Are there any side effects of vagus nerve massage?
Generally speaking, vagus nerve massage is safe for almost everyone, and you unconsciously stimulate the vagus nerve every day through regular activities, such as eating, exercising, and breathing.
In some rare cases, there are potential risks and side effects. Overstimulating the vagus nerve can lead to lower blood pressure and heart rate. This could cause fainting or lightheadedness. If this occurs, getting to a safe area and talking to a medical professional before proceeding with future vagal nerve massages is essential.
Vagus never massage is a great way to improve mental health, reduce anxiety, decrease migraine symptoms, and better your digestion. Vagal nerve massage can be achieved in a number of ways through stomach, ear, neck, and foot massages. This can be done easily throughout the day and as often as necessary to achieve optimal results. Although unlikely, it may be possible to overstimulate the vagal nerve; therefore, it’s essential to start with light pressure for a limited amount of time and work up to moderate pressure for a longer duration, depending on comfort level.
What are the benefits of massaging the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve influences Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which indicates cardiovascular health. By increasing HRV, there is a reduced risk of heart disease. Several other health benefits include migraine relief, reduced stress and anxiety, better digestion, and reduced inflammation.
Is it safe to massage the vagus nerve?
In general, vagus nerve massage is safe for most people. However, there are potential risks and side effects to consider. Overstimulating the vagus nerve is possible, leading to fainting and low blood pressure in some individuals. It’s important to start with a few minutes daily and increase as required, depending on symptoms.
What acupressure points stimulate the vagus nerve?
Pressure points in the stomach, feet, ears, and neck help stimulate the vagus nerve. By gently applying pressure to these specific areas, you can help relieve anxiety, digestive issues, and even inflammation symptoms.
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- Journal of Mucosal Immunology. The intestinal neuro-immune axis: crosstalk between neurons, immune cells, and microbes.
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