We like to think that we’re totally in control of our thoughts and behaviors, but are we? The human mind is extraordinarily complicated, relying on an intricate nervous system and incorporating both “nature” and “nurture” factors to make us who we are. While we might think that we’re feeling sad or angry for one reason, the true motivation may lie elsewhere.
Enter the Vagus Nerve
Consider the complexity of the human vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in your body, and arguably, the most important. Its origin point is the brain stem—the area of the brain responsible for the unconscious control of our most important bodily functions—and from there, it travels through the esophagus, chest, heart, and stomach organs.
The vagus nerve works by connecting the brain to the stomach, and coordinating signals between the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which work in opposition within the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It also plays a role in digestion and your feelings before, during, and after eating—like how you often feel tired after having a large meal. Its functionality is both far-reaching and complex, and scientists still don’t fully understand everything it does.
However, we do know that the vagus nerve plays a role in producing that “gut feeling” you sometimes have in response to new situations or new information. It may also play a role in creating your “fight or flight” response; when experiencing a sudden increase in stress, your heartbeat will increase, your breathing will become more rapid, and your blood pressure will increase. These changes are fantastic if you’re in a truly life-threatening situation, equipping you with the physical changes you need to battle or flee more effectively. But in day to day life, these increased levels can actually be problematic.
Accordingly, positively stimulating the vagus nerve is linked to a number of positive effects for conditions like:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
If you suffer from any of these mental and physical conditions, properly stimulating your vagus nerve could bring you some measure of relief.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
So how do you stimulate your vagus nerve? For starters, your vagus nerve is being unconsciously stimulated by a wide range of variables in your environment, naturally. However, it’s completely within your control to stimulate the vagus nerve with intention.
There are several ways to do this:
- Deep breathing. One of the best ways to positively stimulate your vagus nerve is to practice deep breathing, focused on the diaphragm. Try breathing in through your nose slowly, and out through your mouth. This stomach-level breathing practice increases blood flow to your gut, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating the vague nerve by proxy. It’s also a great way to center your thoughts, slow your heart rate, and get control of your mind. Consider practicing deep breathing in moments of high stress, and occasionally throughout the day.
- Physical exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise and resistance training, is great for stimulating the vagus nerve in a healthy way. Of course, the benefits of physical exercise are well-documented and at least somewhat understood by the general public. If you exercise vigorously every day, or nearly every day, you’ll maintain a healthier weight, you’ll be less likely to face mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and you’ll be less susceptible to physical conditions like heart disease and cancer.
- Yoga is an effective combination of exercise and deep breathing, making it an exceptional choice for vagus nerve stimulation. Throughout your yoga routine, you’ll engage your body in physical stretches and strength-based training, all while deep breathing and focusing your thoughts.
- Healthy social interactions. Healthy social interactions are good for you, especially considering their effects on the vagus nerve. Work on improving your relationships with loved ones, and consider reaching out to old friends and family members you haven’t spoken with in a while. Most importantly, let loose and have fun with others as often as you can.
- Direct stimulation. It’s also possible to stimulate the vagus nerve with gentle electrical impulses. Some patients have received vagus nerve stimulation in the form of surgically implanted electronic devices, but it’s more common these days for people to use specially designed earbuds to gently stimulate the vagus nerve.
Stimulating the vagus nerve may not be able to fully resolve the medial issues you face, but it may be able to give you control in a difficult situation, or mitigate your symptoms. If your medical issues continue to give you difficulty, or if you’re experiencing a massive decrease in your quality of life because of them, it’s important for you to talk to a physician about your problems.