Imagine standing under a gentle waterfall. Comfortably cool water trickles down your head, separating into two streams on the right and left as it washes down your neck. One stream twists as it graces your throat, goes down past your heart, winds its way around the organs in your abdomen and ends at the intestines behind your belly button. The other stream threads down your neck to connect to your stomach. Both streams branch out further into tiny inlets, calming and soothing every part of your body as they pass through.
Sounds nice, right? What you’ve just imagined is your vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body, begins in the brainstem and wanders its way through your entire torso in two branches like the waterfall I described. As it passes through, it influences all the organs of digestion and many other vital systems, including the heart, the lungs, the liver, the pancreas and gallbladder, and the gastrointestinal tract — and then it goes back up to the brain in a communication loop.
The vagus nerve wanders so much that it’s nearly impossible to track the whole thing. (This is where it gets its name; “vagus” comes from the Latin “vagor
”, to wander
.) And just like that meandering waterfall, its “claim to fame” is bringing on the relaxation response. Through the connections between the vagus nerve and digestion
, breathing, and the heart, healthy vagus nerve function helps reduce inflammation and increase relaxation throughout the body. So if you’re interested in calming your nervous system and reducing stress
, the vagus nerve might just be your new best friend.
Read on to learn more about how the vagus nerve works and how to stimulate it to beat stress.
The Vagus Nerve and the Nervous System
To understand how the vagus nerve helps you beat stress, let’s take a look at the sympathetic and the parasympathetic
When you experience stress, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system
(SNS), which releases epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine. This response is responsible for "fight or flight" by speeding up your heart rate and increasing blood flow to your muscles so you can react quickly to danger. Not all stress is bad though — it’s this same SNS that allows you to do anything active, such as exercising, playing with your kids, or dancing at a party.
You can think of it like stepping on the gas pedal on your car: sometimes you need to use it to speed up quickly to avoid a collision (the kind of stress we definitely don’t want a lot of); other times you just need it to help you get from point A to point B (the kind of activity we do want in our lives).
If the sympathetic nervous system is like the gas pedal, then the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is like the brakes.
It helps your body to relax after activity, stress or trauma by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, increasing digestive activity, promoting restful sleep, reducing inflammation and boosting your immune system. It’s our friend the vagus nerve that switches on this response; by stimulating the vagus nerve, you send the message to your brain and body that it’s time to relax.
Staying In Balance
For a safe and energy-efficient ride through life, you need both your gas and your brakes to function properly and in proper balance. But as we all know, many of us are too heavy on the gas, and don’t use the brakes enough.
How much stress is in your life? Even if you think it’s a “normal” amount, look closely at what you consider to be normal. In our fast-paced, stress-driven world, “normal” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.
Too much stress is not only an unpleasant mental state to be in; it’s also like poison for your body. There's a cumulative effect that comes with repeated exposure, even when it isn't extreme. It can lead to lowered immune response, sleep disturbances, metabolic imbalance, cardiovascular problems, and more. So it’s not only worthwhile to put in the effort to reduce your stress; it’s critical
So without further ado, let's look at some specific ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to keep your stress levels in check.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Basically anything you do that’s calming, relaxing or soothing can stimulate your vagus nerve, like taking a bubble bath, listening to calming music, or being in nature
. Even positive social engagement can stimulate the vagus nerve because we’re wired to feel relaxed and comfortable in the safety of our “tribe”.
But if you want a more direct approach to stimulating the nerve, there are options in two categories: vagus nerve stimulation devices (only suitable for some people); and natural methods (accessible and safe for most people).
-Vagus Nerve Stimulation Devices-
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) devices include medical implant devices approved for people with certain conditions such as epilepsy. Kind of like a pacemaker, the devices are programmed to send mild electrical pulses to the brain through the vagus nerve, in order to prevent seizures.
There are also an increasing number of commercial, non-invasive VNS devices on the market that anyone can buy. But because they attempt to stimulate the nerve through the skin, rather than directly like an implant, the technology can be less precise, and you run the risk of over-stimulation or stimulating the wrong nerves. An article discussing the safety of these devices on brainfacts.org
even warns of the risk of triggering a heart attack with improper stimulation. So before you run out and get one of these devices, it’s important to do thorough research and speak to a medical expert who can advise you on whether it’s a good choice for you.
-Natural Vagus Nerve Stimulation Methods-
Fortunately, there are also many completely natural and safe vagus nerve stimulation methods. Here are some of the easiest and most effective ones to try:
- deep breathing and other breathwork techniques
- singing, chanting, humming, yawning and gargling all stimulate the vagus nerve at the throat
- cold exposure such as splashing your face with cold water, or taking a cold shower
- vagus nerve massage: through various techniques, you can stimulate the nerve through gentle massage at the throat or where it comes to the surface at the entrance to the ear canal
- belly button stimulation: the belly button is the place on your body where you find the thinnest layer of muscle between the inner vagus nerve and the surface of your skin, making it the most effective way to directly reach it through massage, acupressure or other stimulation techniques
If you’d like to learn more and experience the stress-reducing benefits of vagus nerve stimulation through the belly button, as well as many other energy healing benefits, check out our Belly Button Healing Kit