In a previous article, I discussed the importance of the vagus nerve and its connection to digestive health and its potential role in the pathophysiology of IBS. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) counterbalances the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, normalizes heart rate, and promotes healthy digestion and relaxation. It also has an antidepressant effect and helps keep inflammation in check. Increased vagal health (known as vagal tone) is linked with greater intimacy and social bonding, whereas diminished vagal health is associated with negative moods, loneliness, and social isolation.
Unless you have a surgically implanted VNS device, you can’t actually stimulate the vagus nerve directly. However, because the vagus nerve passes through the facial muscles, inner ear, throat, lungs, diaphragm, and gut, you can indirectly stimulate it through certain practices that influence it via the mind-body feedback loop. The following are a few of these techniques that you can practice in the privacy of your own home:
Conscious breathing is the practice of breathing with awareness and intention. It’s also one of the fastest and easiest ways to positively influence the state of the nervous system. The objective is to move the belly and diaphragm in conjunction with the breath and to slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is decreased to five to seven breaths per minute from the typical ten to fourteen breaths per minute. This can be achieved by inhaling to a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and exhaling to a count of 8. Breathe in slowly through your nose to a count of 4, allowing your lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your inhalation completely fill your lungs, gently and naturally expanding your lower abdomen, not your chest. Hold the breath for a count of 7. Then slowly exhale through your nose to a count of 8. Completely release the air during your exhalations, letting the abdomen naturally relax and deflate. To increase the benefits even more with your exhalation, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth (just behind your upper teeth), purse your lips slightly, and gently exhale through your mouth to a count of 8.
How Often to Practice
Start by practicing conscious breathing for six cycles (one in/out breath equals one cycle) per session. If you like, you can gradually work your way up to twelve cycles or more per session. Conscious breathing will be most effective if it is practiced daily, with at least one or two sessions per day.
You can further stimulate the vagus nerve when you practice conscious breathing (see above) by creating a slight constriction at the back of your throat and creating an “ahhh” sound with your mouth closed. Then breathe out as though you are fogging up a mirror, again keeping your mouth closed and silently saying “ahhh” as you exhale. You will notice your breath making an “ocean” sound, softly moving in and out, like ocean waves. The breath should be steady, rhythmic, smooth, and full. Let your inhalations expand your lungs fully, then completely release the air during your exhalations. Direct the breath to travel over your vocal cords and across the back of your throat. Keep your mouth closed but your lips soft and relaxed. Concentrate on the sound of your breath and let the “ocean” sound soothe your mind. It should be audible to you, but not so loud that someone standing several feet away can hear it.
How Often to Practice
Start by practicing ocean breath for six cycles (one in/out breath equals one cycle) per session. If you like, you can gradually work your way up to twelve cycles or more per session. Ocean breath will be most effective if it is practiced daily, with at least one or two sessions per day.
Humming or Chanting
The vagus nerve has branches that run from the brain stem to the larynx (voice box), and it’s responsible for controlling the movement of the vocal cords. In fact, damage to the vagus nerve is the specific cause of vocal cord paralysis. Stimulating the vagus nerve through the vibrations of humming is an easy and enjoyable way to influence the health of the nervous system. If you prefer, you can chant the word “OM,” “home,” “hum,” or just “hmmm,” stretching out the “mmm” sound as long as you can. Observe and enjoy the sensations in your chest, throat, lips, and head.
How Often to Practice
You can practice humming or chanting for a few minutes at a time or for 15 to 20 minutes per session, with up to two sessions per day. The exercise will be most effective if it’s done on a daily basis.
Singing loudly works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus nerve. Singing, whether either in unison (as with a choir or group of friends) or alone, will stimulate vagus nerve function, increase relaxation, and elevate mood.
Diving Reflex & Exposure to Cold
The diving reflex is a complex cardiovascular-respiratory response to immersion. It slows the heart rate, increases blood flow to the brain, relaxes the body, and reduces anger, all of which are mediated by the vagus nerve. Splashing very cold water on your face from your chin to your scalp and covering both cheeks is all that’s needed to induce the diving reflex. Alternatively, you can cool down the nervous system by putting ice cubes in a ziplock bag, sealing the bag, and holding the ice against your face while briefly holding your breath. You can also take cold showers, finish a warm shower with thirty seconds of ice-cold shower water, or take a swim in an unheated pool.
Research shows that therapeutic massage can stimulate the vagus nerve, increasing vagal activity and vagal tone. The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging specific areas of the body, such as the feet (reflexology) or neck. A neck massage along the carotid sinus (the right side of the throat near where you check your pulse) can also stimulate the vagus nerve. While it's generally more effective to go to a professional massage therapist, you can perform gentle self-massage on the neck and feet to help stimulate the vagus nerve.
The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. Studies have shown that supplementing with Lactobacillus rhamnosus (L. rhamnosus), a particular probiotic strain, promotes various positive changes in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), one of the body’s primary neurotransmitters that’s mediated by the vagus nerve and acts to calm the central nervous system.
Laughter relaxes the entire body and has positive effects on the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system. The process of laughing increases abdominal pressure and diaphragmatic movement. Because the vagus nerve passes through the diaphragm, these movements provide vagal stimulation and send a signal through the nerve telling the body to relax. In addition, laughter reduces the level of stress hormones and triggers the release of mood-enhancing hormones, such as endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.
How to Practice
Find something in your workplace or daily activities that makes you smile, and actively seek out stimuli that makes you laugh and that you can access anytime throughout the day. You can also watch humorous movies or television shows, read humorous books, go to a comedy club, or simply joke around with friends. Some health providers incorporate humor therapy as part of their treatment protocols. You don’t even have to laugh out loud to experience the soothing benefits of laughter. Finding something funny that makes you chuckle on the inside tends to be just as therapeutic.
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