How to Calm the Vagus Nerve

Published On - 3 June, 2020By Alina Butunoi

One of the most important nerves in your body, the vagus nerve is also responsible for recovery from stressful “fight or flight” situations. Learn more about how to calm your vagus nerve down to improve performance and reduce stress.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The longest of the cranial nerves, the vagus nerve takes its name from the Latin word “vagary”, which means to “wander”. As you’ll soon see, this is a perfect description since this powerful nerve “wanders” throughout your entire body, starting in the brainstem just behind the ears and traveling down each side of the neck, across the chest and throughout the abdomen. In fact, this unique bundle of nerve fibers networks your brain with your stomach, digestive tract, lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys. It also connects to a range of other nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions, and even your ability to tune-in to other people’s voices.

Constructed of thousands upon thousands of microscopic fibers – 80% of which are sensory – the vagus nerve is responsible for letting your brain know what’s happening in your organs and is vital for keeping your body healthy.

The Vagus Nerve and Physical Performance

Current research into the vagus nerve is providing some profound insights into how it can be stimulated to help improve outcomes for athletes. Here are a two of the most important concepts scientists have uncovered so far:

1. Anti-Inflammatory Action: The vagus nerve connects closely with muscles and receptors in the body and can help reduce inflammation when it occurs.

2. Recovery Ability: Because the vagus nerve is the primary parasympathetic conduit from the brain to your organs, you can think of the vagus as the “recovery nerve”. When your body experiences fluctuations in pulse, blood pressure and oxygen the vagus nerve kicks in. Improving this nerve and learning techniques to calm it, can lead to better responses to stress and physical training.

The Vagus Nerve and “Fight or Flight”

If all that wasn’t enough, the vagus nerve is also an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs down after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger.

Not all vagus nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagus activity, which means their bodies can calm down faster after a stress.

How to Calm the Vagus Nerve Down

There are a number of ways you can help strengthen and calm your vagus nerve.

1. Deep Breathing

When you’re stressed out, afraid or anxious, your “fight or flight” instinct kicks in and your breathing rate changes.

Deep and slow breathing, however, can help calm down the vagus nerve and reduce this stress. This is because your heart and neck contain specialized neurons that detect blood pressure and oxygen levels and transmit the signal back to your brain and vagus nerve. The more you breathe in, the lower your blood pressure. The result is a calming of the fight or flight response.

When you use this slow breathing technique be sure to spend an equal amount of time breathing in and out. This increases the sensitivity of vagus nerve by lowering blood pressure.

Be sure to breathe slowly from your belly. That means when you breathe in your belly should expand or push out. When you breathe out your belly should cave in. The more your belly expands and the more it caves in, the deeper you’re breathing.

2. Box Breathing

One of my favorite tools for calming the vagus nerve, improving mental clarity and lowering stress is something known as box breathing. It’s quite simple to perform, yet extremely powerful, and takes only a few moments to do.

First, think of a square box with four equal sides. Now imagine that you are doing a different breathing action for each side of the box and for the same duration and length.

As an example of what this looks, try the following:

  • Inhale for 2 seconds
  • Hold for 2 seconds
  • Exhale for 2 seconds
  • Hold for 2 seconds

You can perform as many rounds of this four-sided pattern as you’d like and you can even integrate it in walking. Again, the idea is to calm down the vagus nerve if it’s overstimulated. For an added challenge, trying to increase the duration of breathing for each side of the “box” to 4 to 5 seconds in length.

3. Diaphragmatic Stretches

Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that’s critical to your breathing. When your diaphragm moves downwards your lungs fill with air, when your diaphragm moves upwards the air is expelled. Like any muscle in your body, you can strengthen and “stretch” your diaphragm to improve performance and flexibility. One way to do this is through focused breathing drills, like the ones listed below:

4. Abdominal Massage

Use a warm towel and apply light pressure in a circular motion around the abdomen and ribs. Afterwards, leave the towel on for about 5 minutes. This can help lower blood pressure and calm the vagus nerve. Abdominal belts and bands can also provide some low-grade stimulus throughout the day.

5. Diet

Avoid foods that are troublesome for you or that you know promote inflammation of your joints or aggravate your stomach. Certain foods that are high in sugar, sodium and caffeine can also result in stress and anxiety, which in turn can trigger the fight or flight response of your vagus nerve.

6. Alternate Hot and Cold Water

During your next bath or shower, trying alternating between cool and warm for a few minutes. Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases – all of which is mediated by the vagus nerve. If alternating water temperature, while you’re bathing, is a little too much, you can also wash or splash your face with cold water at the start or end of a bath or shower.

7. Singing

Believe it or not, singing has been found to increase your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – a measurement of the time between heartbeats. This in turn activates your sympathetic nervous system, calms your vagus nerve and is conducive to getting in a flow state. In fact, humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing and upbeat energetic singing can all increase HRV in slightly different ways. This can even be something as simple as humming the letter “N” as you walk or study.

8. Gargling

This one might sound a little strange, but the vagus nerve actually activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. That means that gargling contracts these muscles, which calms the vagus nerve and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract. One simple way to experience this is to take a drink of water. Before you swallow, gargle loudly for a few seconds. This simple technique can actually help relieve stress.

9. Tongue Drills

The tongue is also closely connected to your vagus nerve. That means that stretching or working the tongue can in turn help decrease anxiety of stress. To start with, slowly push your tongue out as far as you can, then slowly push it back. Do 10 reps of this simple exercise and increase the number of reps if you feel capable.

For an added challenge, slowly push with the tip of your tongue into left side of your cheek, then move to the right side. Do 10 reps in total or add on a few more reps if you’d like. Some say that these types of tongue exercise are like doing push-ups for the vagus while gargling and singing are like doing sprints.

10. Sleep or Lay on Your Right Side

Studies have found that laying on your right-side increases heart rate variability and reduces vagal stimulation more than being on other sides. Laying on your back can also help calm your vagal nerve and lower your heartrate.

Ultimately, the vagus nerve is one of the most powerful and unseen parts of our body. When activated it can trigger panic, anxiety and our ingrained fight or flight instinct. But by following just a few of the tip listed above, you can find ways to calm your vagus nerve and help improve performance and relaxation. Give it a try for yourself and experience the power of one of your body’s most amazing nerves.

To learn more about techniques and training to improve performance, contact us today.

About Author

Alina Butunoi

Alina Butunoi is one of Ottawa’s most respected massage therapists and exercise therapy coaches. A previous nominee for the Ottawa 40 Under 40 business leaders, she is also a certified Movement Neurology Specialist with Z-Health, a cutting-edge neuro-exercise system that helps improve health, alleviate pain and maximize athletic performance.

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