what is the vagus nerve

The Vagus Nerve – The Body’s Most Powerful Mind-Body Connection

How I Came to Learn about the Vagus Nerve

The first time I heard of the vagus nerve was from my neurologist. Diagnosed with chronic migraines, I learned how this nerve’s intricate pathways connected with my symptoms. The vagus nerve, known as the “wandering nerve,” influences vital organs and the gut, affecting heart rate, breathing, and digestion. Understanding its role helped me realize why stimulating the vagus nerve can induce relaxation. With various methods like massage, deep breathing, and more, we can enhance vagal tone, reduce stress, and lead a healthier life. The Vagus Nerve and CBD offer potential benefits too. Discover the power of this mind-body connector and embrace a calmer, healthier life through vagus nerve stimulation.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

So what is the vagus nerve? First of all, the pronunciation – it sounds like ‘vegas’ as in the city of Las Vegas. The spelling comes from the word  ‘vagrant’ or ‘vagabond’ and it was the Greeks who gave it the name vagus because it was “the wandering nerve.” It is the longest nerve in your body and it travels from head to gut and connects major organs and digestive systems to the brain. Look at this picture to get a better idea of the vagus nerve’s extensive “wandering” path through the body. 

The vagus nerve’s extensive connections in the abdomen surprised me. Previously, I suspected food triggers for my migraines, leading to restrictive diets. Little did I know, it was the vagus nerve all along. When migraines eased, the relief felt in my stomach was a sign of its influence.

This nerve’s vast reach from the brainstem to the gut is vital because it plays a significant role in our parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest and digest” functions. As a counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response, the vagus nerve calms us after a threat. It interacts with critical organs like the heart, lungs, gut, liver, spleen, and kidneys, making it a crucial mind-body connector. Stimulating the vagus nerve influences automatic processes like heart and breathing rate and gut muscle contractions, impacting overall well-being.

A Healthy Vagal Response

So, you have a vagus nerve, and it’s pretty cool! But what can you do to affect it? Well, the key is to focus on your vagal tone—the activity level of your vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone allows your body to relax faster after stress. Studies have shown a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In simple terms, the more you increase your vagal tone, the better your overall well-being. High vagal tone reduces stress by lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

Measuring your vagal tone involves tracking your heart rate, breathing rate, and heart rate variability (HRV). When HRV is high, your vagal tone is also high, indicating a healthier response to stress.

A healthy vagal response is crucial for mitigating stress and promoting overall health. The exciting part is that we can directly access our vagus nerve to stimulate the automatic “rest and digest” function, instantly de-stressing ourselves. Taking care of your vagus nerve can lead to significant benefits for your physical and mental well-being.

Why Stimulate the Vagus Nerve?

For most of us, manipulating the vagus nerve aims to achieve deep relaxation. Stimulating the vagus nerve signals the parasympathetic nervous system that all is well, creating a sense of safety and allowing the body to unwind fully. In our fast-paced modern world, constant stress can push us into a state of perpetual fight or flight, leading to various mental and physical issues like chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, and more.

Recognizing the impact of an overstimulated nervous system, it becomes evident why exploring non-drug methods to induce relaxation, like vagus nerve stimulation, is so important. Accessible anytime, anywhere, this “chill pill” approach holds the potential to counter the effects of stress and improve overall well-being.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Methods

The earliest documentation of vagal stimulation was done by the Greeks. They found that massaging the carotid artery in the neck caused the heart rate and blood pressure to lower with a very pronounced effect and so they dubbed it ‘the site of sleep.’ However, it was actually the stimulation of the vagus nerve that runs right alongside the carotid artery that caused the effect. Although this is the first known vagal stimulation method, we are now aware of several other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve in order to induce a relaxation response.

Massage

Carotid massage is still as valid and powerful a method of vagus nerve stimulation today as it was when the Greeks used it.  You can stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging the area around the carotid sinus, located along the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. Tilt your head back and apply gentle pressure with two fingers for about 5-10 seconds near the angle of the jawline area where the pulse is the strongest in the neck.  Rub in a circular motion. It may be helpful to use a massage oil like Ritual from Cordial Organics to help the fingers slide easily. 

Deep Slow Breathing

Deep, slow breathing activates the vagus nerve² , reducing anxiety and boosting the parasympathetic system. To achieve complete breaths, inhale slowly, expanding the stomach, chest, and collarbones. Release the breath gradually, feeling relaxed. Aim for 5 – 7 breaths per minute. For extra vagal stimulation, constrict the throat slightly during exhales to produce the HHH sound.

Ear stimulation

The ear is the only place where the vagus nerve reaches the surface of the body. Stimulating the vagus nerve via the ear is primarily done by acupuncture. There are also electronic stimulators that you can connect to the outer ear. However you can also gently stimulate sensation in the ear’s vagus-innervated areas by gentle touch, pressure, or light traction on the ear’s inner helix, the concha (deepest bowl), ear canal, and the scalp just behind the ears. As with massaging the neck, use of a massage oil such as Cordial Organic Ritual Oil will help facilitate ear based vagal stimulation.

Gut Bacteria

Healthy gut bacteria play a crucial role in brain function through vagus nerve influence.³  Specific bacterial strains utilize vagus nerve signaling to communicate with the brain and alter behavior. Bifidobacterium longum, for instance, has anti-anxiety effects during gut inflammation.

Excitingly, CBD enhances probiotic absorption in the gut. As cannabinoids are lipids, they withstand stomach acids and promote the absorption of nutrients, essential minerals, and probiotic bacteria. Evidence suggests that CBD oil, especially Cordial Organics’ Balance, positively influences probiotic colonization, enhancing gut health.

Singing, Humming, Chanting, Gargling

The vagus nerve is connected to the throat muscles and vocal cords and so you can stimulate it by activities that involve moving these. Singing, humming, and chanting, are all easy activities to do in the shower in the morning or the car on the way to work to help increase vagal tone and prepare you for stresses the day may bring. Try gargling the last swallow of water when you are having a glass. 

Valsalva Maneuver

It takes two forms. In one form, simply pinch your nose closed and close your mouth. Then, try to exhale forcefully for about 20 seconds. The other form of a Valsalva maneuver also starts by holding your breath. While holding your breath, bear down as though you were having a bowel movement. Try to hold this position for 20 seconds. 

Cold Exposure

Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve Cold showers and running around underdressed for the weather are possible routes. Find a way to freeze your butt off and you can get a healthier vagal response. 

Exercise

This one really needs no explanation. A healthy body translates into a healthy vagus nerve and healthy vagal tone. The best exercise to do is the one you enjoy doing and will do on a regular basis. If you haven’t found it, find it! I personally like yoga, pilates and other bodyweight strength exercises. It really doesn’t matter much what you do as long as you are moving and getting your heart rate up.

Laughter

Because stimulating the throat is good for your vagus nerve laughter is similar to singing, chanting and humming. But as the vagus nerve runs through your chest and abdomen as well, a good deep belly laugh is even more beneficial. That blissed out euphoria we feel after a really good hard laugh is explained by this. Also as a rather odd sidenote, there is a form of yoga known as laughter yoga that might be worth checking out if you want to laugh, but you just can’t seem to find any humor in the world.

The Vagus Nerve and CBD

CBD has been well established as a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-seizure medication. Research is ongoing, however there are cannabinoid receptors directly on the vagus nerve and it can logically be expected that supplementing our own endocannabinoid system with external CBD will benefit vagal tone. There is much anecdotal evidence of this, but we must await further studies for science to confirm.

Conclusion

The vagus nerve is a powerful mind body connector that is in charge of relaxing the body. There are a number of methods to directly stimulate the vagus nerve to improve vagal tone which is important to manage the ravages of stress on the body. Vagus nerve stimulation is a highly accessible way to relax and unwind that everyone should be aware of. Explore and find methods that work for you and reap the benefits of a calmer, healthier life. 

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