The Vagus Nerve and its Keys to Wellness

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The vagus nerve may be the most subtly powerful part of your body that you’ve never heard of. Nicknamed the ‘wandering nerve,’ it originates in your brain stem and extends through your ears, tongue, heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and sex organs— among other organs— connecting them and creating a body-wide network of influence (the nerve splits as it descends through the body, enabling its extensive reach).

The vagus nerve is a part of your parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, which promotes calm, hormone balance, positive mood, anti-inflammatory effects, immunity, and benefits to so many wide-ranging aspects of your health. I’ve been fascinated by the influence of the vagus nerve since I found it to be key for activating a calming response in my own autonomic nervous system, which has for years been disregulated by Lyme disease. And during my research and experimentation, it’s demonstrated itself to be powerful for beauty and wellbeing at large.

WHY IT HELPS

Stimulating or activating the vagus nerve helps switch on your parasympathetic nervous system and normalize the influential HPA axis. It influences your blood pressure and heart rate (both directly through the heart and via the kidneys) along with a spectrum of bodily functions, including digestion and feelings of satiety. I find it particularly amazing that the 90% of vagus nerve fibers send signals up to the brain from the digestive tract. And 10% of its fibers send brain signals to your gut relating to the secretion of stomach acid and enzymes. It’s a true illustration of the gut-brain axis communication!

You might reason that stimulating the vagus nerve can help you stay healthy, balanced, and calm— and you’re right. But I find the advice around how to stimulate the vagus nerve to be a bit confusing and overwhelming. You see, there are dozens of ways to stimulate it. Almost too many to keep track of. My advice would be to pick just one or two methods and practice them consistently.

Here are a few of my favorites, all of which I find inherently calming (perhaps because of their effect on the vagus nerve!):

  • Singing, humming or chanting.

  • Deep breathing from your abdomen, with a long, slow exhale.

  • Yoga.

  • Foot massage.

  • Meditation.

  • Increasing the beneficial bacteria in the gut (via fermented foods & probiotics!).

  • Acupuncture- especially ear acupuncture points.

  • Laughter.

I was also intrigued to see that OSEA just released a Vagus Nerve Oil meant to be applied to the back and right side of the neck to stimulate the vagus nerve and support vagus nerve health. I’ve been using it on my neck, as well as applying it to the center of my stomach (just beneath my ribs to above my bellybutton), where I can feel a calming effect from massage pressure. The blend of juniper, chamomile and lavender smells very grounding and is meant to diminish anxiety & stress and promote relaxation while stimulating positivity and wellbeing in the mind and body. I love discovering beauty products that have such a deep, holistic effect on my body and beauty— well done, OSEA!

KEEP GOING

Over time, stimulating the vagus nerve can help you achieve what is called ‘higher vagal tone,’ which improves blood sugar regulation and digestion, lowers blood pressure and inflammation, and can reduce migraines, depression and anxiety. Some treatments have gone so far as to implant a device that stimulates the vagus nerve with the goal of improving inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. One 2010 study found that higher vagal tone was linked to the cycle of positive emotions, physical health, and positive social connections— something we all strive for when it comes to wellness and beauty in our lives. And a 2018 study found that vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) could be an important therapy for a range of conditions in the years ahead. I’d encourage you to think about your own vagus nerve health and the effect it could have on any inflammation, digestive issues, anxiety, or depression you might experience. Use some of these therapies consistently, and see how your own body responds to the calming effects.