Did you know that you can turn on the “rest and digest” system and promote relaxation by activating your vagus nerve? Read on to find out how.
The Vagus Nerve and the Gut-Brain Connection
Let’s first talk about the vagus nerve, where it is located, and what it does.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body that plays an essential role in maintaining our emotional and physical health. It is vital in regulating our mental health because it is responsible for many functions, including breathing and helping our body relax after a stressful event. It connects our two major processing centers - the brain and our gut - and it also connects the brain to the heart and lungs.
How the Vagus Nerve Helps Us Relax
Anxiety is one of the ways our body responds to stress. It is a healthy response that helps us to stay safe, but too much anxiety can be debilitating.
The vagus nerve helps to balance our “fight or flight” response by triggering a relaxation response after a stressful situation. It is a vital part of our “rest and digest” system and impacts our breathing, digestion, heart rate, and immune system. All these functions directly affect our mental health and our ability to manage stress/anxiety.
Why Vagal Tone Matters
Constant anxiety has significant consequences on our bodies. Over time, it weakens our ability to bounce back from stressful situations quickly or adapt to sudden changes by lowering our vagal tone.
Vagal tone is a term used to measure how active the vagus nerve is and is categorized as either low or high. A high vagal tone is healthy and helps us relax after a stressful situation. It is measured by tracking our heart rate variability (HRV), heart rate, and breathing.
Strengthening vagal tone is a fantastic way to improve health and enhance our stress response, which can decrease the frequency and intensity of anxiety. Below are tips for vagus nerve activation that can be easily added to a daily routine.
Tips for Activating the Vagus Nerve for Anxiety Relief
Cold exposure: Research has found that frequent exposure to cold decreases the “fight and flight” response. You can wake up your senses in the mornings by summering your face in ice water or finishing your shower with 30 seconds of cold water.
Singing, humming, and gargling: The vagus nerve runs through the face and torso and is connected to the vocal cords. So allow yourself to indulge in a bit of shower karaoke! You can also gargle water.
Probiotics: The vagus nerve acts as a highway for communication between the brain and the gut. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that travel between these organs and help maintain gut health while improving brain functioning.
Massage: Frequent vagus nerve stimulation is linked to higher vagal tone. It can be stimulated by massaging specific body parts, including the ears and jawline. Try massaging your earlobes and working toward the jawline, lightly applying pressure.
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Written by Camila Smith, LCSW