The Vagus Nerve

Apr 01, 2024
zen rocks

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, stress has become an all too familiar companion. Juggling career, family, and personal responsibilities can leave little time for self-care, leading to burnout and a sense of overwhelm. However, amidst the chaos, there lies a powerful ally in our bodies - the vagus nerve. Understanding the role of the vagus nerve and how to harness its potential can be a game-changer in the pursuit of stress relief and overall well-being. 

In this post we will explore the vagus nerve - the main nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system. If you recall (or didn't catch the post- READ IT HERE- the parasympathetic nervous system is the rest, digest, relax side of your autonomic nervous system. I've also put together a Vagus Nerve Guide with 10 quick ways to stimulate your vagus nerve and get you on the road to chill 😎 CLICK HERE to get your copy! 

Understanding the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. It originates in the brainstem and extends down into the abdomen, branching out to various organs including the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.

Functions of the Vagus Nerve:

  1. Regulation of Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in maintaining cardiovascular homeostasis by modulating heart rate and blood pressure. Through its parasympathetic fibers, it helps to slow down the heart rate during periods of relaxation, promoting a state of calmness and reducing stress.

  2. Digestive Health: Another vital function of the vagus nerve is its involvement in the digestive process. It stimulates the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, facilitates the rhythmic contractions of the gastrointestinal tract, and communicates sensations of fullness to the brain, thereby influencing appetite and satiety.

  3. Immune Regulation: Emerging research suggests that the vagus nerve also plays a role in regulating the immune response. Activation of the vagus nerve has been shown to dampen inflammation, offering potential therapeutic implications for conditions characterized by excessive immune activation, such as autoimmune diseases.

  4. Emotional Regulation: The vagus nerve forms connections with brain regions involved in emotional processing, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. As such, it is intricately involved in regulating emotional responses and may contribute to mood stability and resilience to stress.

  5. Respiratory Function: Through its innervation of the lungs and respiratory muscles, the vagus nerve helps to regulate breathing patterns.

One of the key functions of the vagus nerve is its role in the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the "rest and digest" system. When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the stress response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation, digestion, and restoration.

Dysfunction or dysregulation of the vagus nerve has been implicated in various medical conditions, including:

  • Gastrointestinal Disorders: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroparesis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are examples of conditions where vagus nerve dysfunction may contribute to symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel habits.

  • Cardiovascular Conditions: Disorders characterized by autonomic dysfunction, such as dysautonomia and vasovagal syncope, often involve impaired vagal tone and may manifest as dizziness, fainting, or fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure.

  • Mental Health Disorders: Growing evidence suggests a link between vagus nerve function and mental health outcomes. Reduced vagal tone has been associated with conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Chronic Inflammatory Conditions: Inflammatory disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and psoriasis are marked by dysregulated immune responses, and vagus nerve stimulation has shown promise in modulating inflammation and alleviating symptoms in some cases.

The Vagus Nerve and Stress

Stress can manifest in various ways, from physical symptoms such as headaches and muscle tension to emotional challenges like anxiety and irritability. Chronic stress can dysregulate the autonomic nervous system, leading to an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. This imbalance can contribute to a persistent state of heightened arousal, making it difficult to unwind and relax.

Research has shown that individuals with a higher vagal tone, which refers to the activity of the vagus nerve, tend to exhibit greater resilience to stress. A robust vagal tone is associated with improved emotional regulation, better cardiovascular health, and enhanced immune function. Finding ways to enhance vagal tone can be particularly beneficial for you. 

Techniques to Activate the Vagus Nerve

Fortunately, there are several techniques that you can incorporate into your daily routine to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation and well-being. I've put together a Vagus Nerve Guide with 10 quick ways to stimulate your vagus nerve and get you on the road to chill 😎 CLICK HERE to get your copy! 

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, can help activate the vagus nerve and induce a state of relaxation. To practice deep breathing, sit or lie down in a comfortable position, place one hand on your abdomen, and inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to rise. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your abdomen fall. Repeat this process for several minutes, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment, which can help reduce stress and increase vagal tone. To practice mindfulness meditation, find a quiet space where you won't be disturbed, sit comfortably, and close your eyes. Bring your awareness to your breath, noticing the sensation of each inhale and exhale. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath without judgment. Start with a few minutes of meditation each day and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable with the practice.


Yoga combines physical postures, breathwork, and meditation to promote relaxation and flexibility. Certain yoga poses, such as child's pose, cat-cow stretch, and legs-up-the-wall pose, can specifically target the vagus nerve and stimulate its activity. Incorporating a regular yoga practice into your routine can help reduce stress and enhance overall well-being. Legs-up-the-wall post is a great one to do prior to bed- it has been shown to help with insomnia. 

Social Connection

Social connection and supportive relationships have been shown to positively influence vagal tone. Spending time with friends and loved ones, engaging in meaningful conversations, and participating in group activities can all help strengthen the vagus nerve and buffer against the effects of stress. Make an effort to nurture your relationships and prioritize quality time with the people who uplift and support you. 

Need some like-minded friends - Join the Haelan Empowered facebook group-click here!

Laughter and Play

Laughter is not only contagious, it's also therapeutic. Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve and triggers the release of endorphins, our body's natural feel-good chemicals. Incorporating humor and playfulness into your life can help reduce stress and promote relaxation. Watch a funny movie, spend time with playful pets, or engage in activities that bring you joy and laughter.

Cold Exposure

Cold exposure, such as cold showers or immersing your face in cold water, can activate the vagus nerve and stimulate its activity. The shock of cold triggers a physiological response known as the mammalian dive reflex, which slows down heart rate and induces a state of calmness. Start gradually with brief exposures to cold and gradually increase the duration and intensity over time. It's also important to note that if you are experiencing HPA axis dysfunction- start with just immersing your face and don't do a full cold plunge- this could stress your body too much! 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body to release physical tension and induce a state of relaxation. To practice progressive muscle relaxation, find a comfortable position and start by tensing the muscles in your toes for a few seconds, then release and relax them. Continue this process, moving up through the body, tensing and relaxing each muscle group, including the legs, abdomen, chest, arms, and face. Focus on the sensations of relaxation as you release tension from each muscle group.

Singing or Chanting

Singing or chanting activates the vagus nerve by stimulating the muscles in the throat and promoting deep, rhythmic breathing. Engaging in vocal exercises can help regulate heart rate and promote relaxation. Choose music or chants that resonate with you personally and allow yourself to fully immerse in the experience.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can be an effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. Massage techniques such as Swedish massage, which involves long, flowing strokes, or acupressure, which targets specific pressure points on the body, can help release tension and improve circulation. 


Engaging in gardening can have a calming effect on the nervous system and stimulate the vagus nerve through tactile sensations and connection with nature. Whether you have a backyard garden, a balcony planter, or a few houseplants, spending time tending to greenery can reduce stress levels and promote emotional well-being. Get your hands dirty, breathe in the fresh air, and savor the sensory experience of nurturing living plants.


Understanding the role of the vagus nerve can provide a pathway to greater resilience and well-being. By incorporating techniques to activate the vagus nerve into your daily routine, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, yoga, social connection, laughter, play, and cold exposure, you can support your body's natural ability to relax and restore balance. Prioritize your well-being and embrace the power of the vagus nerve to navigate stress with grace and resilience.


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