What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, right?
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But when it comes to your vagus nerve (pronounced like the city of Las Vegas), it carries signals to your brain, heart, lungs and digestive system. It’s the longest cranial nerve in your body, running from your brain all the way to your large intestine.
Your vagus nerve plays a part in controlling involuntary sensory and motor functions like your heart rate, speech, mood and urine output. It helps your body switch back and forth between your flight-or-fight response and your parasympathetic mode, where you’re more relaxed.
But your vagus nerve can lose its ability to switch back to your parasympathetic mode due to factors like stress or age. Known has vagal dysfunction, it can put you at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety.
It’s no wonder then that a lot of attention has been on the vagus nerve and ways to improve how well it functions.
Headache and facial pain specialist Emad Estemalik, MD, talks about the vagus nerve and how it plays a role in your mental and physical health.
How to stimulate your vagus nerve
For those with epilepsy, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been used to treat seizures. This medical procedure places a device inside of your body to help stimulate the vagus nerve with electrical impulses. It can also be used for those with depression who haven’t had success with other treatments.
“VNS has the effect of modifying some of the physiologic responses that are induced by the vagus nerve,” says Dr. Estemalik.
Research is ongoing to see if VNS can help with other health issues like multiple sclerosis, migraines and Alzheimer’s disease.
For those with long COVID-19 symptoms, new research shows that the virus may have adverse effects on the vagus nerve, causing persistent voice problems, dizziness and low blood pressure.
But if you’re looking to improve your stress levels and overall health, you can also naturally strengthen your vagus nerve in other ways.
Turn to this practice to help calm your mind and focus on deep breathing. While doing meditation, try extending your exhales, making them longer than your inhales. This will help slow your heart rate.
“Meditation can regulate your autonomic nervous system,” says Dr. Estemalik. “It has a good effect on lowering rapid breathing, rapid heart rate and cortisol levels.”
Yoga can also be helpful for the same reasons. Just make sure you pay attention on your breathing.
Working out and getting your body moving can affect your vagus nerve, research shows. Interval training and endurance training can increase your vagus nerve activity and improve your heart rate variability.
“Exercise lowers your sympathetic nervous activity and controls your parasympathetic response so that you have a good balance when it comes to your cardiovascular and respiratory function,” says Dr. Estemalik.
Research shows that reflexology (a kind of massage) can increase vagal tone and even decrease blood pressure.
“Massage can reduce some of the heightened activity in the vagus nerve,” says Dr. Estemalik.
Try giving yourself a foot massage by rotating your ankle, rubbing your sole in short strokes and gently stretching your toes back and forth.
Music can help motivate us, bring us joy and tap into our emotions. When it comes to the vagus nerve, the research is mixed on how music affects it.
Your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, the muscles at the back of your throat and passes through your inner ear.
Try humming or singing or just listening to calm, soothing music. Those sounds and vibrations may stimulate your vagus nerve.
You may have seen a well-known congressperson recently testing this idea on Instagram Live by dunking her head in a bowl of ice water to help destress.
And plenty of professional athletes use cold-water immersion to improve short-term feelings of relaxation.
Research shows that cold-water immersion may help with stress by slowing your heart rate and directing blood flow to your brain. Try placing an ice pack on your face or neck or taking a cold shower.
Benefits of stimulating your vagus nerve
Your vagus nerve affects your mental and physical health in a variety of ways. By either using VNS or a noninvasive way to stimulate your vagus nerve, it can help with the following:
- Minimize seizures in those with epilepsy.
- Treat depression.
- Regulate your emotions.
- Reduce blood pressure.
- Lower your heart rate.
- Reduce inflammation.
- Treat migraines and cluster headaches.
Your vagus nerve plays a powerful role in your body. Keeping your vagus nerve strong and balanced can help you respond more effectively to a variety of emotional and physiological symptoms.
“You want to have balance,” says Dr. Estemalik. “That means you’re neither having a fast-beating heart nor a slow-beating heart. It’s all about regulating your cardiovascular and respiratory functions.”