11 Ways to Hack Your Vagus Nerve and Feel Better
What is the vagus nerve and why does it matter? Let's backtrack. The vagus nerve is part
of the autonomic nervous system. This part of your nervous system controls automatic functions in your body like your heart rate, digestion and breathing. It is divided into two parts - the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” system. Many patients who are in pain are living in a fight or flight state. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” system. This is the system that supports us in chilling out and calming ourselves down, and helps us pee and poop. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, so it helps to keep us calm and balanced.
Back in the day, humans had to keep a constant and vigilant eye out for lions and other threats. Even though today we rarely have to worry about being chased by lions, our bodies haven’t caught up to the fact that the little stressors of everyday life aren’t likely to get us killed or eaten so even these little stressors put us in fight or flight mode. When we are in this state all the time, such as when we are undergoing physical or emotional stress, the vagus nerve is neither giving nor receiving the signals it needs to do its job properly. This can even happen when we don't get enough sleep on a daily basis, or are constantly on the "go." This state is called vagus nerve dysregulation.
Some common symptoms of vagus nerve dysregulation:
Irritable bowel syndrome
Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
High or low heart rate
Heartburn, reflux, gastritis or GERD
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Weight regulation issues
It is clear from this list that when the vagus nerve is not doing its job, many other body systems also struggle to do their job. If you can get your vagus nerve back in working order, all the systems are free to work optimally.
I think I may have vagus nerve dysregulation. How do I start reengaging the vagus nerve? Can I do this on my own? You bet! It’s fun, simple and easy!
Here are 11 different things you can do to stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. Most of these do not require a lot of time and just minimal effort, but should be done consistently to see lasting change.
Sing. Loudly! The muscles in the back of your throat activate the vagus nerve as they move.
Gargle. You want to gargle hard enough that your eyes start to water
Build in some daily prayer and/or meditation, especially chanting.
Expose yourself to cold water or air. The vagus nerve is stimulated when the body is exposed to cold. Try splashing your face with cold water and at the end of your shower, turn on the cold water as long as you can stand it. They may only be 2 seconds to start with. Increase to up to 2 minutes.
Do Yoga. A study compared a group of people who walked daily to a group who did yoga daily and found a significant reduction in perceived stress and anxiety in the yoga group.
Breathe deeply and slowly.
Add in prebiotic and probiotic foods
Exercise - whatever exercise or movement you enjoy is the right thing to start with.
Eat fish - studies show that consuming omega 3 fatty acids increases vagal tone and activity and puts us into that calming parasympathetic mode more often.
Get a massage (you can also get benefit from massaging the front and sides of your neck yourself)
I like to share all of these tricks with my patients as I see so many people that are in pain also have many signs of vagus nerve dysregulation. Try it! You might be surprised at how well it works!