When it comes to the vagus nerve, “getting on your nerves” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, the vagus nerve is one of the most complex cranial nerves in your body, touching on many of the functions and sensations that keep your body in motion. Here’s what to know about the vagus nerve, including what vagus nerve stimulation is and how to keep your vagus nerve healthy.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest, most complicated of the 12 cranial nerves connecting your brain to other areas of the body (fitting, since “vagus” means “wandering” in Latin). It starts in your brain and ends at part of your colon.
The vagus nerve deals with both sensory and motor functions. On the sensory side, the vagus nerve plays a role in feeling sensations in certain parts of your body, including the throat, heart, lungs, and abdomen. On the motor side, the vagus nerve stimulates involuntary contractions in the digestive tract and most of the intestines, allowing food to move through easily. Finally, the vagus nerve affects the muscles in your neck that help you swallow and speak.
Natural ways to stimulate your vagus nerve
While there is a way for your doctor to stimulate your vagus nerve electrically, this method is mostly to treat epilepsy and depression. Instead, you can optimize your vagus nerve health by trying natural ways to stimulate your vagus nerve at home.
Deep breathing: Specifically, stimulate your vagus nerve with deep breathing exercises in which your exhale is longer than your inhale. That way, your vagus nerve tells your brain to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. the one responsible for “rest and digest” mode). Try this: inhale for two counts, hold for one count, and exhale for four counts. Repeat several times.
Cold water immersion: Yes, we’re daring you to end your shower with a blast of cold water. Exposing your body to cold conditions via a cold shower or a polar bear plunge stimulates the vagus nerve and activates parasympathetic nervous activity. Not a fan of the cold? Start small by splashing your face with cold water or dunking your face in a bowl of cold water.
Humming: Yes, stimulating the vagus nerve can be as simple as humming under your breath. The vagus nerve passes through your vocal cords and your inner ear, and humming creates rhythmic vibrations that have a soothing effect on the nervous system. Try humming whatever tune is stuck in your head, varying the pace and volume as you notice the different sensations that humming creates.
Herbs: Herbs and supplements that support your nervous system will indirectly support and stimulate your vagus nerve. Ashwagandha, mucuna, and magnesium are just a few ways to naturally support your nervous system.
How to keep your vagus nerve healthy
To optimize your vagus nerve and keep it functioning, talk to your precision medicine provider for recommendations that are specific to your medical history and your health goals. In general, experts suggest staying physically active and eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Make sure to properly manage any chronic conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure. Finally, considering the vagus nerve’s connection to feelings of stress, find ways to prioritize your mental health and reduce your stress levels, like yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises.