The vagus nerve does many vital things in our body, like signaling the gut to digest, lungs to breathe, and heart to beat. Normally, all of that happens at our subconscious levels. But, we can also consciously, and easily, calm the vagus nerve to help ourselves relax. Also called the “wandering nerve,” the vagus nerve can reduce stress, strengthen our memories, and slow down the heart.
Let us dive into this insightful and helpful read.
10 Ways: How To Calm The Vagus Nerve And Relax
When stressed and anxious, you could calm the vagus nerve to relax, without drugs or devices. It works with your body’s natural physiology to switch over from the fight-or-flight state to the rest-and-digest mode. Stimulating the vagus nerve has many proven therapeutic effects, mainly because of its relaxing and anti-inflammatory properties.
Here are 10 natural, non-surgical ways to calm down your vagus nerve or the “wandering nerve” and start your body’s relaxation response:
- Deep and slow breathing — the belly breathing or the diaphragmatic breathing
- Massaging the sides of necks — the carotid sinus massage
- Holding breath for a few seconds, or breathing out strongly through your mouth while holding the nose tightly closed — the Valsalva maneuver
- Splashing the face with chilled water, as cold exposure stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Coughing and gargling
- Tightening up the tummy muscles, as if bearing down to evacuate the bowel
- Pressing the eyeballs
- A hearty, ‘mirthful’ bout of laughter
- Meditation, especially the loving-kindness meditation
- Exercise and yoga
Diaphragmatic Breathing or Belly Breathing
Vagus nerve stimulation via belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is an easy method of relaxing yourself on short notice. Learn how to do it:
- Lie down on the back on a flat surface with knees bent. If uncomfortable, use a pillow under your head and your knees for support.
- Place one hand on the upper chest and the other on the belly, just below the rib cage.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose, letting the air in deeply towards the lower belly. The hand on the chest should remain still, while the other hand on the belly should rise.
- Tighten the abdominal muscles and let them cave in as you breathe out through your pursed lips. With this, the hand on the belly should move down to its original position.
- Try to get your breathing rate down to 5 to 7 per minute. Normally, it is 18 to 20 per minute.
Regular diaphragmatic breathing for 10 minutes a day can help you become calmer, stay unruffled, and lower your anxiety levels.
Now that you know this amazing method to calm your vagus, why not start this good thing today?
Carotid Sinus Massage or Vagus Nerve Massage
The carotid sinus or “carotid bulb” is a small bundle of nerve endings sitting next to the carotid arteries in our neck. There are two carotid arteries, one on each side of the neck, which supply blood to our brain and head. And we have two carotid sinuses, one of each side, situated roughly below the angle of the jawbone, right where each carotid artery forks out into two branches.
The carotid sinus has chemical and pressure receptors that tell the brain to maintain a controlled supply of blood to its organs including the brain, the heart, and the muscles.
Carotid Sinus Massage (CSM), or Vagus Nerve Massage is massaging the carotid sinus—a simple maneuver that slows the heart rate and lowers our blood pressure.
- First, we turn the head to one side while lying on the back. For a right-sided CSM, we turn the head to the left, and vice versa.
- With two or three fingers, we touch up the side of our neck until we can feel the carotid pulse directly under our fingertips. Then we move our hand a little to the side until we feel some cord-like tissue. This is the carotid sinus.
- We work our fingers gently up and down that tissue to massage the carotid sinus and the vagus nerve for 5 to 10 seconds. Carotid Sinus Massage is applying finger pressure in longitudinal strokes to the carotid sinus (usually the area of the greatest carotid artery pulsation).
- CSM to the left and the right carotid sinuses need a gap of at least 10 to 20 seconds in between.
Carotid Sinus Massage is safe when done carefully. Be careful not to press the carotid artery too hard or too long as it can turn off the blood supply to your brain. And if you do so to both sides at once, it can cause you to faint and lose consciousness (syncope).
People with any cerebral vascular diseases or carotid bruits should not massage their carotid sinuses.
Looking At The Supermoon
Now, look at that picture above — Supermoon of November 13, 2016, at Ramona, California, by Linda Schafer. Take a deep breath. And spend a few unbroken seconds gazing at it; you will most likely feel more relaxed.
While looking at the soft, large moon rising from the horizon, the trees in silhouette, and the distant line of mountains against a scarlet sky, you might have unconsciously taken a slow, deep breath.
If you have not, and if you are not feeling too self-conscious, take a slow, deep breath. Try it now: one slow, deep breath.
And once you do that, you notice it relaxes you almost instantly. Because inhaling and exhaling deeply has always done so. We are born with this ability. It is a body process that stimulates the vagus nerve via the partition between our chest and abdomen, called the diaphragm.
So, the credit of that deep-breathing-induced relaxation goes to our body’s “wandering nerve,” what the scientists call the vagus nerve. Actually, there is one vagus nerve on each side of our body.
A Supermoon occurs when the moon is in its nearest orbit to earth. And the earth, the moon, and the sun line up, with the moon on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. Astronomers call it the Perigee Moon. A Perigee Moon can be around 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a full moon at its farthest from the earth.
Where is the vagus nerve and what does it do?
The Vagus nerve is the tenth and longest of our twelve cranial nerves. It runs from the brain to the womb. It starts at the base of our brain, goes into the neck. Then it travels further through the chest down to the large gut in the abdomen. In women, it reaches as low in the abdomen as the cervix of the uterus.
A common name for the vagus nerve is the “wandering nerve.” So-called because it finds its way from the head down to the gut and uterus, wandering like a vagabond. The word originates from the Latin “vagus.”
Now, what does it do? The vagus nerve has three kinds of functions: sensory (related to our senses), motor (related to movements), and parasympathetic (related to stress/relax response). It brings sensory information from the internal organs, like the heart and the gut, to the brain. Its motor functions involve moving the muscles that help in speaking and swallowing.
The vagus nerve is the key component of our parasympathetic nervous system. It controls those body functions that are not under our voluntary control, like the heartbeat rhythm and the breathing rate. Mostly, it relaxes all the organs it reaches out to on its path down from the brain.
Let us mention here we divide our nervous system into sympathetic and parasympathetic types. The sympathetic nervous system increases alertness, energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. In short, it does everything that needs us to put up a fight-or-flight or stress-response.
Meanwhile, the parasympathetic is our rest-and-digest system. It decreases alertness, blood pressure, and heart rate. And helps with calmness, relaxation, and digestion. This the main ground where the vagus plays.The vagus, or the “wandering nerve,” is the longest autonomic nerve in the human body. It travels a long way as if wandering across the body, from the brain to the uterus. Click To Tweet
How does the vagus nerve work to calm us?
What happens when you stimulate the vagus nerve?
The stimulated vagus releases a bunch of anti-anxiety chemicals in our body:
While the other three are hormones, acetylcholine (ACh) in that list is a neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries a message from a nerve cell to a target cell across a junction. The ACh calms us down.
ACh relaxes the smooth muscles in the walls of our arteries, which dilates those arteries, and brings down our heart rate. ACh also helps and controls our long-term and short-term memories. Brain scientists think it might help in the formation, consolidation, and retrieval of our memories.
We can indirectly stimulate the vagus to release acetylcholine into our body. We do not need to carry out a thing as drastic as surgery to do so. That was something the German-born psychobiologist Otto Loewi did in his original experiment (we talk about the fascinating story later in this article).
Christopher Bergland, a world-class endurance athlete and author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss writes:
The vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure.
What does the vagus do, other than calming us?
Other than the heartbeat, the vagus also controls our gut movements and sweating. It commands the release of tears, saliva, and stomach acid, too. It causes us to gag when something touches the back of our throat. And to cough when a cotton bud tries to clear out a plug of earwax. Women who have had complete spinal cord injury have reported experiencing orgasms via the vagus nerve.
- Memories: Recent research hints us vagus nerve stimulation could help in strengthening our memories. This could open up a world of possibility in Alzheimer’s patients.
- Inflammation: The role of the vagus in keeping down the inflammation in our body is also a promising direction of research.
- Resilience: Those with a stronger vagal response, who get more affected by vagus nerve stimulation, might recover better after a stressful event (resilience).
- Addiction: A January 2017 study shows vagus nerve stimulation therapy can help people overcome drug addiction. It helps them learn new behaviors to replace their drug-seeking behavior.
- Vagus And Fainting: We can overstimulate and it would make us faint. Called “vagal syncope,” it happens because of a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate, which cuts blood flow to the brain.
What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)?
Activation of the vagus is vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). Stimulating the vagus affects many important autonomic functions in the brain and in the body, including neurotransmitter levels, inflammation levels, and metabolism.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a promising treatment option in treatment-resistant anxiety disorders, including PTSD. Studies have shown VNS therapy reduces anxiety in rats and improves scores on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale in patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression.
In hospitals and medical facilities, the experts can stimulate the vagus nerve by:
- Surgical therapy
- Chemical method
- Electrical stimulation
1. Surgical: VNS is a surgical therapy for uncontrolled seizures, given by transmitting mild electrical pulses to the brain via the vagus nerve. In surgical VNS, surgeons implant a device called a vagus nerve stimulator under the chest skin. It stimulates the vagus by sending mild electric pulses.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already approved this device. It is used as a treatment option for those who have medically uncontrollable seizures, and hard-to-treat depression.
2. Chemical: Certain anti-psychotic drugs can also stimulate the vagus. That is chemical VNS.
3. Electrical: In 2018, the FDA cleared a Noninvasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation (nVNS) device to treat cluster headache and migraine. It is a portable, hand-held gadget that gives a mild electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve. Research showed evidence of a reduction in pain of migraine and frequency of cluster headaches.
The neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey discovered stimulating the vagus nerve by electricity can reduce the inflammation of rheumatic arthritis.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) And The Vagus
A heart that beats at different rates throughout the day is a healthy and well-functioning heart. This changeable nature of heartbeats is heart rate variability, or HRV. Those with higher HRV have better general physical health. Experts also associate a high HRV with higher emotional well-being and a more regulated emotional response.
Studies show a link between a gradual loss of heart rate variability and an increased risk of dying in patients with heart diseases. Lower levels of HRV also cause worry, rumination or overthinking, and anxiety.
Now, it is the vagus nerve that controls the heart rate variability (HRV). So, if we measure and index the HRV, we can find out the activity level of the vagus nerve, or the vagal tone.
A more complex or variable HRV shows the vagus is active, and the person is in a resilient and adaptable state. They are also less likely to die of cardiac causes. As this research shows, stimulating the vagus increases the complexity of HRV during sleep and decreases it when awake.
Takeaway — To live longer and healthier, keep your vagal tone optimal, as it keeps your HRV high.
Natural Pacemaker of The Heart: SAN
Our hearts have a built-in pacemaker, the natural pacemaker of the heart called the sinoatrial node (SAN). It instructs our hearts to beat a certain number of times each minute. There is a problem when our hearts beat faster or slower than at a pace fixed by the SAN.
Now, the vagus (or the wandering nerve) controls the SAN. It oversees the SAN so that it does its job of instructing the heart to maintain its pace.
If we cut the nerve connection between the vagus and heart, our hearts would start racing at crazy speeds. Even if we were merely catching a breeze on a hammock, our hearts would beat 100 times every minute. And any heart that beats that fast throughout the day can wear out our organs, and ourselves, rather too soon.
So, having an intact vagus that is always alert keeps our resting heart rate controlled between 60 and 80 per minute. When we actively stimulate the vagus, as we did by letting in a deep breath watching that Supermoon above, our hearts go into relaxation.
Loewi’s Dream of Frogs And Vagus
Read how a scientist dreamed of frogs, did an experiment, and won the Nobel.
In the early 20th century, scientists were trying to find out how information traveled between two nerve cells across microscopic gaps, called synapses. In 1902, a German researcher Otto Loewi traveled to London as a guest researcher at Ernest Starling’s laboratory at the University College. There, Loewi met his lifelong friend and fellow researcher, Henry Dale. The two changed physiology research forever.
In 1921, Loewi fell asleep while reading late into the night. And dreamt of an experiment that solved how nerves relay information across synapses. He woke up in the middle of the night, scribbled some notes, and went back to sleep.
In the morning, to his great frustration, he could not recall much of the experiment or his thoughts on it. Neither could he decipher the hasty notes made the night before.
The next night, the same dream came to him. This time, he got up and rushed to the institute’s lab to carry out the experiment.
He cut out two beating frog hearts and soaked them in two jars filled with saline solutions. One of these hearts had the vagus still attached. He stimulated it with electricity. The heart slowed down. He took the saline from that slow-beating-heart jar and poured it into the jar with the second heart. To his surprise, the second heart slowed down.
He made a guess that a chemical was released by the first heart into the solution. He later found it was the vagus nerve that had released a chemical.
He called it “Vagusstoff.” Later, his friend Dale isolated it and renamed it Acetylcholine (ACh). For discovering the first neurotransmitter, Loewi and Dalle received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
In their paper titled Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders, the authors Breit, Kupferberg, Rogler, and Hasler write:
The vagus nerve is an essential part of the brain-gut axis and plays an important role in the modulation of inflammation, the maintenance of intestinal homeostasis, and the regulation of food intake, satiety, and energy homeostasis. An interaction between nutrition and the vagus nerve is well known, and vagal tone can influence food intake and weight gain.
Moreover, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the pathogenesis of psychiatric disorders, obesity as well as other stress-induced and inflammatory diseases.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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