If you’ve ever experienced butterflies in your stomach or that infamous “gut feeling”, then you are indeed familiar with the workings of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is a long, meandering nerve that runs from your brain all the way to your gut.
The word “vagus” comes from the Latin word: wanderer—which is a perfect personification of this long, branching, tree-like system.
This complex, far-reaching nerve acts as an information super-highway between the brain and other organs and systems in its path—including the gut, lungs, and the heart.
Your vagus nerve also acts as the command center for your parasympathetic nervous system—which plays a key role in how you respond to stress by controlling your rest-and-digest response (the opposite of fight or flight)1.
It also communicates directly with your enteric nervous system, also known as your gut-brain connection.
So yeah, this nerve has a ton of influence on how your organs, systems, and even your mood function.
And, if not cared for properly, your vagus nerve can become imbalanced or “weak”, which has a direct affect on your stress response and the organs and systems in its path.
What Causes the Vagus Nerve to Become Imbalanced?
It’s important to understand that the vagus nerve can become overactive or underactive, but most people today suffer from an underactive vagus nerve.
The most common result of an overactive vagus nerve is fainting or a bad case of the jitters.
While genetics do play a sizable role in underactive function, there are key health and lifestyle factors that impact the health of your vagus nerve.
Some driving lifestyle factors behind vagus nerve imbalance include:
- Chronic stress
- Poor digestion/gastrointestinal stress
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Poor posture and muscle tone
This list covers pretty much all the chronic health issues of modern life.
Since the vagus nerve mingles with so many organs, most notably your brain, heart, lungs, and gut their fates are intimately intertwined.
In other words: if your vagus nerve isn’t healthy, it’s likely one or more of the organs in its path will also suffer ill effects…or vice versa.
As ancient wisdom and modern science continues to show us: everything in our bodies, minds, and hearts is deeply interconnected.
Symptoms of Vagal Nerve Imbalance
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we see vagus nerve imbalance manifest in the heart, liver, gall bladder, and stomach.
These patients often present with symptoms of digestive imbalance, such as irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut or reflux; and/or perceived symptoms of heart disease such as heart flutters or abnormal heart beat—which are directly connected to the GI system, liver, and gall bladder.
Since the vagus nerve is so intimately connected to your mind (brain) and body (organs), we also look for emotional imbalances which correlate to these organs such as: anger, anxiety, fear, irritability, an inability to let go, etc.
In Western medicine, researchers have begun discovering links between vagus nerve tone and a variety of conditions, including:
- Heart disease—since the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system it has a direct impact on heart rate via electrical impulses. Therefore, if your vagus nerve is underactive, it can have a negative impact on heart health.
- Alzheimer’s/memory problems3
- Inflammation and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis4
- Migraines—the effects of vagal nerve stimulation on migraine headaches has been so successful, that last year the FDA approved a vagus nerve stimulating device for migraines8
- Pain tolerance 9—specifically, our perception of pain
As the studies above suggest, all these conditions may be improved from what’s known as vagus nerve regulation.
This can occur via a medical device or by 100% natural methods.
Since Traditional Chinese Medicine has had success through natural vagus nerve regulation for centuries, and I always suggest a natural approach first we’ll now look at the best non-artificial ways to tone up your vagus nerve.
7 Natural Ways to Improve Vagus Nerve Tone and Function
1: Meditation—research has shown meditation has a powerful impact on the vagus nerve by optimizing its functional connectivity.
This was shown to lead to a reduction in inflammation, which offers additional benefits to the nerve and all those organs in its path10.
While the study specifically measured the effects of mindfulness meditation, commonsense suggests any type of meditation that calms the mind, reduces stress and relaxes the soul will benefit your vagus nerve.
2: Chanting—since your vagus nerve connects directly to your vocal chords and throat, chanting acts as a natural toner.
If you’ve never tried chanting before, start out by humming the word: “om” or “ah” as long as you can. Then stop, take a few deep breaths, and repeat 5-10 times (or more if you’d like).
3: Laughing and Smiling—we’ve talked about the stress-busting benefits of laughter before, and since stress is the enemy of good vagal tone, regular laughter is a must for keeping this nerve in ship-shape.
Further, it’s been reported that an interested side-effect of vagal nerve stimulation on children with epilepsy is uncontrollable laughter11—which says something about the connection between vagal stimulation and happiness.
It works by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, calming the fight or flight response and balancing your heart rate. All of which have a direct impact on the vagus nerve.
For best results, breathe in deeply through your nose filling your belly with air while not moving your shoulders for a count of 5…then exhale slowly releasing the air for a count of 10.
Repeat 5-10 times every waking hour.
5: Qi Gong-—with its focus on deep breathing, natural movement and meditation, Qi Gong is an excellent practice for stimulating and toning your vagus nerve while reducing stress.
For stress relief, I recommend practicing at least twice a week.
6: Acupuncture—research shows that auricular or “ear” acupuncture is effective in stimulating the vagus nerve, increasing vagal activity and tone, and it can help treat neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation13.
Acupuncture has also shown great effectiveness in treating digestive disorders, lung issues, and balancing a host of other organs and systems directly related to the vagus nerve.
7: Earthing or Grounding—we’ve discussed the benefits of earthing or grounding—the practice of connecting directly with the earth by walking barefoot, swimming, or using a grounding device—before.
However, in researching this article I discovered that earthing can also benefit the vagus nerve. Here’s how: studies have shown electromagnetic field exposure can produce negative effects on the nervous system—including the vagus nerve14.
Therefore, by grounding yourself to the earth through direct contact or a grounding device, you reduce the effects of EMFs which benefits your vagus nerve.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
While medical science has come a long way in its understanding of the vagus nerve, it’s important to remember that the simple, natural solutions are still the best solutions…
…no artificial stimulation required.