The vagus nerve is something you might not think about, or maybe you haven’t even heard of it, but it plays an important role in your life.
Our vagus nerve plays a role in our parasympathetic nervous system, which is what’s responsible for calming our nervous system when needed. Our parasympathetic nervous system balances our sympathetic nervous system, and that’s part of our overall brain chemistry that keeps us balanced in other ways.
The following are some of the unique things to know about your own vagus nerve and what it does in your body and your brain.
What Exactly Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves that come from the brain. Of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves, it’s also the most complex.
The 12 pairs of cranial nerves serve as a connection between our brains and other parts of our body including our head, neck, and torso.
Some of the cranial nerves send sensor information while others are responsible for the control of motor function. Some do both.
The vagus nerve is one that does both.
The vagus nerve runs from the brain stem to the colon, and it controls the sensations we feel in the skin or muscles and the sensations felt in our organs.
Specific effects of the vagus nerve include:
- This nerve enacts communication between the brain and the gut
- The vagus nerve serves as a point of communication with the diaphragm which is why, when you take deep breaths you can feel more relaxed
- This nerve can help send signals to other parts of the body to decrease inflammation
- When the vagus nerve is overacting it can cause issues with heart rate and blood pressure
- The vagus nerve plays a critical role in your fear management—it sends information from your gut to your brain related to stress, fear, and anxiety
- The nerve plays a role in how you make memories—some research shows vagus nerve stimulation can help improve your memory
What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
There’s an area of significant research in the mental and physical health world right now, which is vagus nerve stimulation.
Vagus nerve stimulation is something that can be done with electrical pulses or manually, and the FDA has approved it as part of epilepsy treatment and for depression.
Vagus nerve stimulation may also help with other mental health disorders, including rapid cycling bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Currently, newer research is looking at the possible benefits of vagus nerve stimulation for chronic conditions related to inflammation.
This includes Crohn’s disease-related inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis inflammation.
With rheumatoid arthritis, there was a study in 2016 that showed vagus nerve stimulation could reduce symptoms, and the treatment wasn’t linked to any major side effects.
Other Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
The forms of vagus nerve stimulation discussed above are primarily done in medical environments, but there are certain ways you can stimulate it naturally and on your own.
One option is cold exposure, by something like taking a cold shower or cold swim. When you regularly expose yourself to cold, it can lower your fight or flight response and boost parasympathetic activity in your vagus nerve.
If you aren’t ready for a full-on cold shower, you can also put your face in ice-cold water and then eventually ease yourself into cold showers, increasing the amount of time you spend in the cold water.
Deep, slow breathing exercises can benefit your vagus nerve. Deep-breathing exercises can reduce anxiety by activating this nerve.
Try to take only around six breaths over one minute, inhaling deeply from in your diaphragm. As you do your deep-breathing, your stomach should expand and you should have a long, slow exhale.
Humming, singing, and chanting and other ways to stimulate your vagus nerves by activating the muscles surrounding it. The vagus nerve is connected to the muscles at the back of your throat and your vocal cords.
The use of probiotics can help your vagus nerve because of the connection it has to the gut.
Medication is something you can do to relax and stimulate positive emotions.
Finally, some people also use omega-3 fatty acids to help their brain and nervous system function in an optimal way.
There is some research indicating omega-3 fatty acids can increase vagal activity and tone, and they may help reduce heart rate and improve heart rate variability, which can also have positive effects on the vagus nerve.