It is one of 12 cranial nerves and it extends from your brainstem all the way to your abdomen and through various organs including your heart, esophagus, and your lungs.
It is sometimes called “cranial nerve X,” as it forms part of your involuntary nervous system that directs all of the unconscious body actions, like stabilizing your heart rate and making sure your digestive tract is working properly.
Interestingly, the vagus nerve was named because it actually “wanders” like a “vagabond” and sends out tiny fibres from your brainstem to your visceral organs (organs in your chest and abdomen—heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and intestines.)
The vagus nerve essentially controls your entire parasympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for stimulating what is known as your “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities when your body is resting and after eating.)
A study done at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research has shown that the vagus nerve may actually be what they call “the missing link” to treating chronic inflammation that can cause a variety of other issues— like high blood pressure, migraines, digestive issues and any inflammatory related things like arthritis etc.—all without medication!
Your Vagal Tone
Vagal tone essentially refers to the inhibitory control of your vagus nerve over your heart rate. What the studies now show is that vagal tone is key to activating your parasympathetic nervous system and everything it does. We can measure your vagal tone by tracking your heart rate in combination with your breathing rate.
Typically, when you breathe in, your heart rate speeds slightly and vice versa when you breathe out. Your vagal tone is then determined by the difference between your inhalation heart rate and your exhalation heart rate—the bigger the difference, the higher your vagal tone, which is actually good in this case because it means that you are more able than someone with a lower vagal tone, to relax your your body after a stressful situation.
Why a higher vagal tone is good
Apart from being able to relax faster after stress, people with a high vagal tone have overall better functioning internal systems including:
- Better blood sugar regulation
- Decreased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease
- Generally lower blood pressure
- Better digestion due to proper production of digestive enzymes
- Fewer migraines
- Less depression
- Less anxiety (they naturally deal with stress better)
What scientists have discovered is that the vagus nerve constantly monitors your gut microbiome to determine if there are any pathogenic organisms, and if so, it initiates a response that then controls any inflammation that results from these foreign organisms, which canaffect your mood, your stress levels (and your ability to cope with the stress) and your overall inflammation levels.
What if I have low vagal tone?
Unfortunately, people with a low vagal tone are more prone to hearts problems and strokes, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, cognitive impairment, not to mention more inflammatory conditions such as any autoimmune diseases like thyroid issues, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, lupus etc.
So, how do I increase my vagal tone?
So far, researchers have stimulated the vagus nerve using a device that emits an electrical current but there are other ways to do this yourself.
While the studies also reveal that people are genetically predisposed to different levels of vagal tone, with consistent practice, you can alter your tone to some degree using the following methods.
You know all of those people you used to think were “new age” because they would sit quietly and repeat the “OM” sound? Well, it turns out they are on to something. Because the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, systematic humming can stimulate the nerve. Humming in general will also work.
Likewise, people who speak more are more likely to be able to raise their vagal tone as talking is done through the vocal cords.
3. Wash your face with cold water.
While researchers are not entirely sure why this works, a splash of cold water does seem to stimulate the vagus nerve.
4. Breathing deeply using your diaphragm.
Breathing long, deep breaths from your diaphragm can stimulate and tone your vagus nerve.
Research shows that yoga, along with breathing practices, can significantly increase your vagal tone.
According to a 2010 study, people who meditate regularly and think more positive thoughts tend to have better vagal tone.
7. Increase Good Gut Bacteria.
While there are countless benefits to increasing the healthy bacteria in your gut, surprisingly, this also helps to create a positive “feedback loop” through your vagus nerve and thus increase its tone. Probiotics are a good source of healthy bacteria.
All of the above methods are beneficial to your overall health simply for the fact that they also help reduce stress, which is a major factor in disease, but also knowing that you can help improve your vagal tone, and the specific issue of inflammation, is a powerful tool.
Add these simple tips to your daily routine and see how much better you feel in a relatively short time.
- Forsythe P, Bienenstock J, Kunze WA.Vagal pathways for microbiome-brain-gut axis communication. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:115-33.
- Kok, B, Fredrickson, B, Coffey, K, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science 2013 24: 1123