Do you think a vagus reset is completely safe, even in the hands of an amateur?
Social media influencers are showing us how to relieve stress by “resetting” the vagus nerve through specific stretches and self-massages. They also suggest humming and dipping your face in ice water.
Is it possible that these vagus resets may be harmful to you? Let’s get right into it.
Is Vagus Reset/Massage Safe To Do On Your Own?
No, it is not entirely safe, and medical experts ask you to use caution doing these vagal resets. Unsafe vagal handling can injure the vagus nerves and carotid arteries, causing dizziness, blackout, and fainting. Attempts to reset the vagus nerve in old people can even cause brain stroke.
Unsupervised vagal massages and stretches, aka vagus hacks and resets, may cause serious injury.
1. Nerves can get injured by pressure and stretches.
Nerves are vulnerable to stretch and pressure. They are not steel wires running through your body that no one can break or hurt.
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve, which means it exits our skull from the base of the brain to travel to various organs below.
We need the vagus to regulate our mood, heart rate, digestion, and immune system. It is the critical main part of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps us rest and calm down.
You may induce vagus nerve trauma while performing neck massages and stretches.
Get expert opinions – do not try it yourself after watching a few videos.
2. Vagal massages can hurt the carotid arteries.
Your massaging hands may overly disturb the nearby carotid arteries, which carry blood to the brain.
- Pressing both the carotids together stops the blood supply to the brain and makes you faint.
- Moreover, it can be life-threatening to massage carotid arteries that have hardened.
Arteries harden with age. This hardening, called atherosclerosis, is a result of a buildup of cholesterol and calcium plaques.
This is the danger: Palpating a hardened artery may break off a piece of plaque, which may travel inside the artery to the brain and cause a stroke.
3. Vagal resets can be risky for your carotid sinuses.
There is another risk in people with carotid sinus hypersensitivity (CSH).
Carotid sinuses are located just above the superior border of Adam’s apple (thyroid cartilage). They carry pressure receptors that are sensitive to changes in blood pressure.
Massaging a sensitive carotid sinus can make the heart slow down too much, resulting in falls and fainting in people over the age of 50.
Read this study: Carotid sinus hypersensitivity in asymptomatic older persons: implications for diagnosis of syncope and falls. The University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 2006.
The vagus is a sensitive nerve near a sensitive blood vessel. Consult your doctor before trying out any vagal hacks.
Expert Advice On Vagus Massage/Vagus Reset
Vagus massage reduces your vagal tone. Sudden drops in vagal tone can be harmful to your health.
Experts recommend we maintain a natural-high vagal tone rather than triggering sudden low vagal tones.
Keeping active is a great way to keep the vagal tone high.
Massages, stretches, and exercises may be beneficial, but research has yet to prove that they are safe for all.
However, deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing is often advised as an effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Doctors may prescribe ‘Valsalva maneuvers’ to stimulate the vagus nerve and slow a racing heart or calm heart palpitations.
These maneuvers may be actions like coughing, straining as if trying to release urine, or splashing your face with cold water.
10 Vagus Nerve Facts
Here are ten facts related to the vagus nerve:
1. Longest cranial nerve.
The vagus nerve is a long-winding pair of nerves, It is our body’s longest cranial nerve, stretching from the base of the brain to the large intestine in men and the uterus in women.
Historically, it was called the ‘pneumogastric nerve‘ as it was found to supply nerves to the lungs and stomach.
Today, we know that the brain and the gut communicate bidirectionally (brain-gut axis), and the vagus nerve plays a significant role in this.
The medical term for fainting is “vasovagal syncope.”
It occurs when the vagus nerve is overstimulated, causing a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure.
2. A sentinel messenger to the brain.
The vagus nerve mostly sends signals from the body to the brain.
It transmits the information it receives from our body’s major organs, including the heart, the digestive tract, and the uterus in women, to the brain.
The vagus oversees:
- carrying sensory information from the ear,
- controlling the muscles involved in swallowing and speaking,
- managing the gastrointestinal tract’s motility and secretion,
- the pancreas’ endocrine and exocrine secretions, and
- the liver’s ability to produce glucose.
3. Regulates our inflammatory response.
The vagus nerve is a key component of the inflammatory reflex.
This reflex mechanism triggers our immune and inflammatory responses during germ invasions and tissue injuries.
The vagus nerve alerts the brain to inflammatory responses and then releases neurotransmitters to regulate the response.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to autoimmune disorders, mental health disorders, and even long-Covid.
In fact, a recent study suggests that many symptoms of long-Covid are a result of vagus nerve dysfunction.
According to the researchers, these may include dysphonia (voice problems), dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), tachycardia (rapid heart rate), orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure on standing), dizziness, and diarrhea.
Read the study: Pilot study suggests long COVID could be linked to the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the vagus nerve, European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID 2022, Lisbon, 23-26 April).
“Our findings so far thus point at vagus nerve dysfunction as a central pathophysiological feature of long COVID.”
4. Critical in our fight-or-flight response.
Our sympathetic nervous system is mostly about our fight-or-flight response.
A sympathetic nervous system in overdrive mode is likely to cause persistent stress.
Our parasympathetic system has the opposite functions, helping us relax and recover.
The vagus has a significant role in the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps us go into “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” mode once the stress gets over.
A very low vagal tone may keep us demotivated and prevent us from exiting the relaxing state.
We need optimal busyness to thrive.
5. Vagal stimulation can treat depression and ADHD.
The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls a wide range of vital bodily functions, including immune responses and mood control.
Chronic exposure to high levels of inflammatory proteins, and low levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), have both been linked to depression and mood disorders.
GABA is an antianxiety neurotransmitter, and the vagus nerve has an effect on it.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) was approved in 2005 for the long-term treatment of chronic or recurrent depression in adult patients who had not responded to other treatments.
VNS has recently been suggested as a potential treatment for ADHD, since GABA has close ties to ADHD.
6. Vagal tone tells how well our vagus nerve is functioning.
Low vagal tone is linked with inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), neurological conditions, depression, and metabolic disorders.
Research says we are better off with a higher vagal tone.
- The higher the vagal tone, the better executive cognitive performance, as well as better emotional and health regulation (Thayer et al., 2009).
- A higher vagal tone is associated with better social functioning (Polyvagal theory. Porges, 2007).
- Higher resting vagal tone is thought to be adaptive because “it reflects a functional energy reserve capacity from which the organism can draw during more active states” (Grossman and Taylor, 2007).
We measure vagal tone by measuring heart rate variability (HRV). High HRV is good for us.
• Read this too: Vagus Nerve: Hack To A Better Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
7. Ways to improve vagal tone.
Vagal tone can be improved by exercise, an anti-inflammatory diet, and diaphragmatic breathing.
Heart rate accelerates during inspiration and slows down during expiration, a phenomenon that is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia.
So, slow breathing that makes you exhale longer than you inhale can help your heart rate come down.
This research points out that breathing at 5.5 breaths per minute with an equal inhalation-to-exhalation ratio increases heart rate variability.
And high HRV is good for us.
Modern psychiatrists recognize the connection between mental health & gut health (what’s known as the gut-brain axis.)
The gut-brain axis is the communication superhighway from the gut to the brain.
Read this study: The vagus nerve is the highway: Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory disorders.
9. Vagus stimulation may help you learn faster and achieve higher performance.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus found a direct link between vagus nerve stimulation and the brain’s learning centers.
This discovery can lead to treatments that improve cognitive retention in both healthy and injured nervous systems. It can also pave the way for healthy people to learn new skills faster.
Each time the vagus nerve was stimulated, researchers could observe the neurons that control learning activated within the cholinergic system.
Damage to this system has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other motor and cognitive conditions.
Clinical evidence suggests that VNS reduces daytime sleepiness, increases vigilance in refractory epilepsy patients, and keeps epilepsy patients with impaired consciousness awake.
10. Vagal nerve stimulation can evoke an arousal state change.
Vagal stimulation can have a prominent effect on arousal and brain state.
In this study, VNS dose-dependently increased three behavioral measures of arousal state in mice: pupil dilation; whisker movements; and wheel movement (walking).
In addition, the study authors show that VNS leads to robust and widespread cortical activation.
Some evidence proposes that VNS can evoke an arousal state change in humans in a minimally conscious state (MCS).
Patients with MCS have a clear and repeated awareness of themselves or their surrounding environment.
This preliminary study suggests that VNS is a safe and effective tool for consciousness recovery in MCS patients.
Can you really reset the vagus nerve?
No, you cannot reset your vagal tone to zero and then back up. Resetting the vagus means setting the vagal tone to zero. The term “vagus nerve reset” is quackery at best and deadly at its worst.
Exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help us calm down. They work by stimulating the vagus, skirting the need to ‘think’ ourselves into relaxing.
What is the vagus nerve clinically stimulated?
The vagus nerve regulates internal organ functions like digestion, heart rate, and respiration. It also helps control reflex actions like coughing, swallowing, and sneezing.
Stimulating it with electricity to relieve several illnesses is widely used. Cervical Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) currently treats patients with drug-resistant epilepsy, depression, and heart failure.
VNS has also been used to treat PTSD, migraine, tinnitus, diabetes, arthritis, and movement impairments following a brain stroke.
- A cost-effective measure of vagus nerve stimulation for children with epilepsy
- Efficacy of Vagus Nerve Stimulation in Treatment-Resistant Depression
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is opening new doors in neurorehabilitation and consciousness recovery based on its effects on brain plasticity.
However, it is best to stay safe and consult your doctor before attempting any social-media-guided vagal resets.
You can risk hurting yourself badly if you self-massage incorrectly, use a massage tool, or get a massage from an amateur.
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Now read this highly helpful (and widely shared) post: How To Stimulate & Calm Your Vagus Nerve, From Research.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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