Vagus Nerve Massage: Does it Work?

Improving vagal tone is a prevalent topic, and you may have seen suggestions on how to improve the vagal tone, such as tapping on your chest, gargling, laughter, cold exposure, massage, and deep breathing. But as you might have guessed, not all these techniques are proven to work.

Key takeaways:
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    The vagus nerve is like a communication highway that checks your health status through different signals.
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    There are a bunch of benefits of stimulating your vagus nerve: headache & migraine relief; reducing stress & anxiety; improving your digestion; reducing inflammation.
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    If you feel like your vagus tone is low, you can easily massage it in the comfort of your home by rubbing your ears, neck and shoulders, feet, or stomach.

In this article, I’ll explore the research on vagus nerve massages. You will learn what the vagus nerve is, the benefits of vagus nerve massage, types of massage, and what could be the side effects of the massage.

What is the vagus nerve?

Imagine your body, which, as we all know, is a highly complex network of trillions of cells and neurons. The vagus nerve is like a communication highway that checks your health status through different signals. Information is sent to the brain and vice versa - relaying information from the brain to relax or lower the heart rate, for example. But for most people, the vagal tone is low due to stressful lives, poor sleep quality, and more. So what are the ways to improve your vagal tone? Let’s dive into that.

Vagus nerve massage benefit

Long-term improvement of HRV is seen with regular vagus nerve work through massage, so let’s look at what the massage could benefit.

For migraine relief

Because the vagus nerve is the leading super highway between your brain and the rest of your body, stimulating it helps with relieving various pains, including migraine pain.

Noninvasive 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.

For stress and anxiety relief

As I have covered before, 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.” In other words, the vagus nerve sends information from our brain to our heart and lungs that help us calm down when something stresses us out.

Also, stimulating your vagus nerve helps produce neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help regulate our moods, with serotonin and dopamine regulating the emotional states of happiness or depression.

For better digestion

The vagus nerve improves your digestion. One of the ways is upregulating your mechanical breakdown of solid food. This is important because most of us are eating solid foods. It doesn't apply to some, of course, if you have a medical condition that warrants you to eat softer foods. It is essential to be able to break down our food before it enters the entire digestive tract. Otherwise, we can have a whole host of symptoms, from reflux to bloating, flatulence, and so on. Also, it increases satiety.

You'll easily recognize when you are hungry and complete if you have optimal vagus nerve function and tone. When this is disrupted, and you have a low vagal style, you will often see this is not easy to determine. You may overeat, or you may not eat enough. This is a simple but essential concept regarding weight loss and overall health and performance.

For reduced inflammation

Self-abdominal massage is an emerging technique for reducing inflammation and toning the vagus nerve. Some research shows that enabling the vagus nerve acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and tranquilizer since it reduces the production of proinflammatory cytokines and calms down the nervous system. Moderate pressure massage has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, increase the movements of the digestive system and contents, and enhance insulin secretion to help balance blood sugar in preterm infants (studies on adults have yet to be done).

How to massage the vagus nerve?

So we have covered a bunch of benefits of vagus nerve stimulation. But can you stimulate and massage your vagus nerve at home? The simple answer is yes. So let’s jump to how and where to massage your body to stimulate your vagus nerve and learn the massage points.

Stomach vagus nerve massage

This abdominal massage technique is easy to do at home in just a few minutes. It is best to perform this practice on an empty stomach, a few hours after eating. But you should start slowly and see how your body responds to the massage:

  1. Lie on a comfortable floor mat or bed.
  2. Place your hand below your breastbone. Make gentle downward stroking movements—moving your hand down toward your abdomen. Repeat this movement for a few minutes, cycling one hand over the other in a backward bike–pedaling–like motion.
  3. Use your fingertips to make small circular movements on your abdomen. Start massaging the sides of your stomach and slowly work your way inward and downward. Go progressively deeper, using a firm but comfy amount of pressure. Continue for several minutes.

Vagus nerve massage in the ear

There are three main points that you can massage in your ear:

  1. Applying pressure to the upper area of the base of the ear that connects the ear to the head can help relieve ear and jaw pressure, which can help ease migraines and tension headaches.
  2. The section of cartilage is located above the ear canal opening. Applying pressure to this point, or ear piercing to the area, may help relieve migraines by altering stimulation of the trigeminal and vagus nerves that contribute to migraine pain.
  3. The ear apex is located in the middle of the top of the earlobe. Applying pressure to this point can help relieve earaches, migraines, and tension headaches.

Massage the vagus nerve in the neck

When it comes to neck and shoulder massage, it is the easiest - you can rub almost anywhere to stimulate your vagus nerve. If you are new to massage, stick to moderate pressure first and do sessions about 10 minutes long.

Start massaging the area between the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles in the neck/shoulder area and at the muscles below the bottom of the skull with twisting or rubbing motions.

Another form of vagus nerve massage is carotid sinus massage, which involves pressing lightly with the fingers on the side of the neck where the pulse from the carotid artery can be felt the strongest.

Foot massage to stimulate the vagus nerve

Various vagus nerve reflexes (or acupressure points) are mapped on 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.

Are there any side effects of vagus nerve massage?

In general, vagus nerve massage is safe for most people. However, there are potential risks and side effects to consider. You could potentially overstimulate your vagus nerve, which might lead to fainting and lowering your blood pressure and heart rate too much.

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