By Dr. Karen Bender
Meet Your Vagus Nerve
Have you heard of the “wandering nerve”? This important nerve is named the vagus nerve because it wanders throughout your body, connecting the brain to the rest of the body. It’s the longest nerve in the body, and it stretches from the brain to the large intestines.
Why You Should Care
Since the vagus nerve connects so much of the body with the brain, it is one of the main ways the brain and body communicate. Some of its many functions include:
- Reducing inflammation
- Lowering blood pressure and heart rate
- Providing sensory information from the heart, lungs, and throat
- Delivering information from the gut to the brain
- Communicating with the diaphragm
- Managing stress and anxiety
- Regulating swallowing and speech
If the vagus nerve is not functioning well, it is considered to have “low” tone. Vagal tone is determined by measuring the difference between your heart rate as you inhale and your heart rate when you exhale. . The greater the difference between the two, the better the vagal tone. Good vagal tone is an indicator of a healthy stress response and reflects your ability to recover from stressors quickly and efficiently. Symptoms of a poorly functioning vagus nerve can include the following:
- More easily overwhelmed/more difficulty regulating emotions
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased inflammation
Simple Ways to Improve Vagal Tone
Fortunately, just like a muscle with low tone, there are simple things you can do to help increase the tone and function of your vagus nerve. Here are a few things to try:
Meditation: Some research suggests that the reason we gain so many health benefits from meditation is because it tonifies the vagus nerve.
Deep breathing: Using the diaphragm to breathe stimulates and tonifies the vagus nerve. For tips on how to determine if you are breathing correctly read this article.
Cold water: Stimulation from cold water is excellent for the vagus nerve. While complete submersions are great (think polar plunges), you can also get a similar benefit from splashing your face with cold water or ending a hot shower with 30 seconds of cold water.
Singing, humming, chanting: Since the vagus nerve innervates the vocal cords, singing, humming, and chanting help to strengthen it. Singing also can strengthen the immune system, increase lung capacity, and increase pain threshold, among other health benefits.
Biofeedback: Vagal tone can be measured and improved using this tool.
The Gut-Brain Axis and Vagal Tone
Since the vagus nerve serves as a communication line between the brain and the gut, it should come to no surprise that strengthening it has benefits for both mental and digestive health.
In fact, studies have shown promising results for the treatment of both depression and inflammatory bowel disease using vagus nerve stimulation. In one study, patients with depression who had not seen improvements with other treatments saw a 53% positive response to vagal nerve stimulation and 33% were symptom free after 1 year of treatment. Another study showed that vagal nerve stimulation may be able to reduce inflammation in the bowel as seen in inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chron’s and Ulcerative Colitis.
Want to Experience the Benefits Yourself?
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of low vagal tone and want to strengthen this important nerve, a great first step is to make an appointment for a biofeedback. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Karen Bender to learn more about how you can benefit from strengthening this influential and powerful nerve.