Within your body lives a long, powerful nerve that allows you to think, feel, work, relax, live, and thrive.
It starts at the brain stem and travels down to the digestive tract. Along the way, it connects with the heart, lungs, liver, and more. Bottom Line Health interviewed Leah Lagos, PsyD, BCB, to learn more about how the vagus nerve affects your health.
All day long, messages travel along the vagus nerve. Some of those messages travel from the top down, as your brain tells your body what to do, but many more—80 to 90 percent—move up from the body to the brain.
This intimate physical connection between the brain and body is why an anxious brain can cause an upset stomach, deep breathing can calm your mind, and a gut feeling about something can resonate in your head, heart, and stomach.
Nerve health and mood
The vagus nerve has received much attention lately, as the world searches for an antidote to the towering amounts of stress people are dealing with. That’s because, in addition to ferrying messages back and forth to the brain, this nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest-and-digest” branch of the nervous system that governs mood along with immunity, digestion, respiration, sexual arousal, and much more. This is the more relaxed counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system, also called the “fight-or-flight” system, which is what allows the body to ramp up quickly to meet the demands of a stressful or dangerous moment.
High vagal tone. When the vagus nerve is healthy, a person is said to have high vagal tone, which is associated with the ability to reset after stress. It’s also linked to less anxiety, happier mood, better blood-sugar regulation, a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, reduced inflammation, and improved digestion.
Low vagal tone. Both age and chronic stress can decrease vagal tone. With low vagal tone, you have trouble turning off the sympathetic nervous system. It’s associated with heightened emotional reactivity, difficulty making objective decisions and inhibiting negative thoughts, and poor memory. Low vagal tone reflects low levels of resilience, meaning you struggle to recover from adversity and meet new goals.
Low vagal tone is also linked with system-wide inflammation. That’s because a healthy vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which dampens inflammation throughout the body. Without it, inflammation and the many diseases linked with it, from heart disease to depression, can flourish.
Strengthen your vagus nerve
It’s easy to strengthen the vagus nerve with simple breathing exercises. Most adults breathe at a rate of 12 breaths per minute, but to calm the nerve, take time each day to practice slowing that to six breaths per minute. You want to make your exhalation longer than your inhalation to truly induce the parasympathetic relaxation response.
Begin by practicing for 10 minutes at a time in a quiet space with no TV or distractions. Inhale through your nose for four counts, then exhale for six counts through pursed lips, as if you’re blowing on hot coffee.
Use a timer on your phone, a breath-pacing app like Breathe+, or visit the Biofeedback Federation of Europe’s website and download their EZ-AIR PLUS breath pacing tool, which is free for 30 days. Work your way up to 20 minutes, twice a day, for maximum vagal tone benefits.
Slow, deep breathing also improves heart rate variability (HRV), which is the slight variation in the time between heartbeats. High HRV represents all of the things high vagal tone does: a flexible, resilient nervous system, an ability to handle stress on the fly, and a reduced risk of a slew of medical issues, including headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, and depression. It also correlates with enhanced focus and physical stamina, so don’t be surprised if your golf game or crossword puzzle skills improve, too.