Lately, my Facebook feed has been filled with ads for a variety of treatments and approaches to improve "vagal tone". Research about the importance of the Vagus Nerve has exploded in recent years, exploring its relationship to anxiety, depression, heart issues, digestion, epilepsy, migraines, and more.
The Vagus Nerve, or NERVES, is also. known as the 10th cranial nerve. They start as one nerve in the brainstem and then branches out into two. Known as the "wanderer", the left and right branches of the Vagus Nerve connect to all of our major organs and finish their journey by attaching to the large intestinal. You can see the expansive reach in the image below. It carries signals between your gut, brain, heart, and digestive system, regulates blood pressure, saliva production, and is involved in speech, taste, urination, mood, and more. The vagus nerve conveys information from the major organs to the brain. If the information communicated is bad, we may feel fatigued, have a headache or muscle aches or suffer from brain fog. The vagus nerve carries a huge amount of information from the gut to the brain through the enteric nervous system, which lives in the mucosal lining of the intestinal tract. The VN acts like a fiber optic cable, sending high-speed messages to the brain about the state of health in the gut.
Many things can interrupt the proper functioning of the vagus nerve, such as gut dysbiosis (meaning there are microbes there like bacteria, yeast, and mold that have altered the delicate balance in the gut); diabetes, viral infections such as Epstein Barr and COVID-19; long-standing inflammation, physical or psychological stress. Consider the astronomical levels of people suffering from mental health conditions after the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did the majority of Americans contract COVID-19 at some point which can dysregulate the VN, but the stress of the lockdown, loss of loved ones, working and schooling from home, and social isolation all took a toll on the VN function. Many people are still struggling with the impact of this still.
Dysregulation of the VN is associated with a wide range of health issues, including:
poor immune system function
increased heart rate
poor emotional regulation
There are many strategies we can use to improve "vagal tone", which really means to improve the way the VN is functioning.
Deep, measured breathing, such as belly breathing and box breathing is very effective and calming the vagus nerve and improving its tone. Exhaling longer than you inhale has been found to be the most effective.
Singing, humming, and chanting
This stimulates the larynx which in turn, activates the vagus nerve. Loud gargling has a similar effect.
Cold Water Immersion
Put your face in cold water with at least 2/3 of your cheeks in the water
It turns out that laughter is the best medicine!
Massage, deep pressure such as the embracing squeeze and foot massage are very effective
This is creating a safe space for yourself by crossing your arms across your chest and giving yourself a hug, much like "hook-ups" I use from Brain Gym.
A vibration plate or vibration wearable such as Apollo Neuro can have an immediate impact on your vagus nerve.
Sound therapy, such as neuroacoustic music has been shown to change heart rate variability and improve vagal tone. There are many options out there, so work with a qualified professional to choose one that is right for you. One I use widely here is the Safe and Sound Protocol, developed by Dr. Stephen Porgess who literally wrote the book on Polyvagal theory.
Allied Services. The Vagus Nerve: Your weapon in fighting stress
Cleveland Clinic. Vagus Nerve
Epstein, O. (2023). Vagus nerve dysfunction: what is it and what are the main symptoms?https://www.topdoctors.co.uk/medical-articles/vagus-nerve-dysfunction-what-is-it-and-what-are-the-main-symptoms
Medscape. Vagus Nerve Anatomy
Neff, M. (2023). The Autistic and ADHD Nervous System. Neurodivergent insights