Vagus Nerve Massage: Does it Work?

Vagus nerve massage may be an effective way to improve vagal tone and promote mental health and well-being. Although there are several ways to potentially 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.

What is the vagus nerve?

Vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve that connects the brain with the rest of the body, innervating a range of internal organs. It 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 and lower the heart rate, for example. Due to stress and poor sleep quality, some people can experience decreased vagal tone; however, there are several 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 to have a better state of well-being. Massaging pressure points, breathing exercises, cold therapy, and diet can all contribute to improving vagus nerve activity.

Massage

Different pressure points throughout the body can be used to stimulate the vagus nerve for stress and anxiety relief, amongst a range of other potential benefits. Pressure points that are easily accessible can be found in the ear and neck. They can be massaged in a circular and firm motion to allow activation of the nerve endings and promote a sense of relaxation.

In fact, moderate pressure massage, in particular, has been linked to enhanced parasympathetic nervous system response, signifying increased vagal activity.

Breathing exercises

There are several beneficial breathing exercises that may improve vagal nerve tone, especially when practiced consistently. These include box, deep, and “belly breathing,” which involves taking breaths deep into the belly and holding it before releasing them.

As shown in research, deep breathing is associated with an increase in heart rate variability (HRV). Being a proxy measure of vagal tone, an increase in HRV suggests an enhanced activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and a sense of relaxation.

Cold therapy

Cold therapy, such as a cold bath, ice bath, or shower, has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve through cold-induced reflex. This process is a physiological response to the cold that happens without you knowing.

Cold water may stimulate the vagus nerve, which leads to reduced heart rate and increased heart rate variability (HRV), as well as decreased blood pressure. When combined with deep breathing, it may also reduce stress and anxiety. This process can improve both mental and physical health.

Diet and mindful eating

Stimulating the vagus nerve through diet involves incorporating certain foods and practices that can benefit healthy digestive function. In some studies, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to decreased resting heart rate and increased heart rate variability (HRV) - a measure that correlates with vagal tone. Moreover, supplementation with probiotics had a positive influence on HRV in hypertensive women, which suggests a positive impact on autonomic nervous system function.

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 not only improve your digestion, but also your vagus nerve function.

Vagus nerve massage benefits

While the research on vagus nerve massage is limited, vagus nerve stimulation is associated with a range of benefits that are backed by scientific evidence. This leads people to explore how vagus nerve self massage may be used to promote overall well-being and better mental health.

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. The vagus nerve sends information from our brain to internal organs, including our heart and lungs, to help calm us when something causes stress and anxiety.

In one study that explored the benefits of vagus nerve massage as compared to soft shoulder massage, both types of massages were found to improve heart rate variability - a proxy measure of vagal tone and cardiovascular health. Moreover, participants reported enhanced relaxation and reduced stress.

If you experience stress, you may also want to consider using a non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) device. Associated with a range of benefits, Non-invasive VNS devices can stimulate your vagus nerve to potentially relieve stress and anxiety, as well as improve sleep.

For migraine relief

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 sides of the neck, or gently humming to massage the vocal cords may be beneficial ways to ease the symptoms of a migraine.

Moreover, in a recent systematic review, non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation has been concluded to be a promising therapeutic approach for migraine relief. More specifically, the vagus nerve stimulation of the ear, also known as the auricular VNS, as well as in the neck region, led to an improvement in headache and migraine symptoms.

While there is currently a lack of research examining whether vagus nerve self massage can lead to similar benefits, trying this type of massage at home is an accessible and free method that is worth considering.

For better digestion

Vagus nerve plays a pivotal role in the gut-brain axis, which is a bidirectional communication system between the gut and the brain. It controls appetite and satiety, and may even affect your mood.

A disturbance in the gut-brain axis may play a role in several functional gastrointestinal issues, such as acid reflux, bloating, flatulence, and even more severe concerns, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Thus, finding ways to improve your vagal tone may not only lead to improved gut-brain signaling, but also a better digestive function.

There is a growing interest among the health enthusiasts in whether stomach vagus nerve massage may be an effective tool to potentially improve digestion. Studies show that abdominal massage may reduce muscle tension, improve local blood circulation, and lead to improved digestive function.

For reduced inflammation

Some research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve is associated with potential anti-inflammatory benefits. Among several mechanisms that have been proposed, one shows that vagus nerve interacts with the body's immune system to reduce proinflammatory cytokine release. This may have a therapeutic potential in inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and IBS.

While no studies have examined how massaging vagus nerve may reduce inflammation, massage therapy, in general, has been shown to attenuate the inflammatory processes in the body, as well as increase the parasympathetic system activity.

Vagus nerve massage pressure points

Several pressure points, mainly found in the ear and neck, may be used to help stimulate the vagus nerve when massaged. This can be achieved by applying light to moderate pressure in certain areas to stimulate and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This process is shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, as well as lower blood pressure to achieve better overall mental health and well-being.

How do you 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 mental health and well-being. However, do not hesitate to consult with an experience massage therapists for a more in-depth guidance on specific techniques, the optimal amount of pressure, and the exact location of vagus nerve massage points. As finding what works for you might take time, don't be discouraged - observe how your body responds and seek alternative vagus nerve stimulation methods if you don't experience any benefits.

Ear

The auricular branch of the vagus nerve innervates the ear, where three main pressure points can be found and used to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. 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 nerve and potentially, provide a sense of relaxation once complete. Stimulating the vagus nerve through ear massage may decrease pain from migraine headaches.

Neck

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.

An additional 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, constantly observing how your body reacts.

Abdomen

Abdominal massage 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 potentially, 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 vagus nerve massage.

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 ear, neck, and abdominal 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.

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