My what? That was my response a few years ago, since it’s a nerve typically not on anyone’s radar. Think of the vagus nerve as the highway between your gut and your brain traveling from your brain stem to your digestive system. It starts at the base of the head, goes down both sides of the head, behind the ears and the lymph and then innervates the face, heart, lungs and every organ involved in digestion including the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder.
It has the widest nerve fiber distribution in the body (similar to the Mississippi River), making its function critical to our overall health. When the vagus nerve is not functioning optimally it can affect not only your digestion, but your blood pressure, blood glucose, immune system and even your mood. Low function can also result in increased cardiovascular risk, inflammatory conditions, many digestive disorders including SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), reflux, high incidence of food sensitivities, depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
High vagal nerve tone assists with lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, gut and brain inflammation, better mood and less anxiety.
So how do you give your vagus nerve a workout and keep it strong? Here are a few suggestions that need to be done daily for optimal vagal health. Try a few that make sense for you.
- Turn the water to cold at the end of your shower and rinse your whole body for 30-90 seconds. This one might take a few times to “warm” up to (pardon the pun). I can attest that although this is not pleasant at first you feel completely energized after turning off the water.
- Stimulate your gag reflex. Think of when you go to your doctor, and he asks you to say “ahh” and looks down your throat. I needed some help with this one, so I purchased some popsicle sticks to help me out – unfortunately they only came in packages of 500 so if you need one let me know. Put the stick at the back of your throat till you gag and your eyes water and do 1-2x/day. Gag refluxes have been compared to doing push-ups for the vagus nerve.
- Gargle with water 1-2 minutes 1-2x/day. The muscles you use to gargle activate the vagus nerve thus stimulating your gastrointestinal tract.
- Sing loudly. Since the vagus nerve is close to the voice box, the singing vibrations stimulate it. This one is my least favorite as my voice is less than optimal and I don’t want to offend my neighbors, but your situation might be different. Humming can help as well.
- Conscious breathing and meditation also regulate vagus nerve function. One easy breathing exercise is called alternate nose breathing (close both nostrils with ring finger and thumb and breathe in to a count of 4 through one nostril with other closed, hold for a count of 4 with both closed and then breathe out through the other nostril for a count of 4 and repeat for 5-10 cycles), which has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.
Although it takes consciousness to put these exercises in your daily routine your overall health is dependent on keeping this nerve strong and healthy. One recent quote I came across helped me with making this a priority:
F.M. Alexander “People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
Keeping the vagus strong and healthy may be one of the keys to keeping your digestive and nervous systems strong in order to build a healthy future. So the next time you’re at a party ask someone if they are keeping their vagus nerve in shape – it might lead to some interesting conversation.