The gut is not only the key to health but the key to happiness as well! It plays a role in stress modulation by transmitting signals to and from the brain via neurotransmitters, along the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the biggest nerve in the body, extending all the way from the brain stem to the intestines and branching out to connect the major organs.
When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the body’s “rest and digest” response. Engaging in activities that wake up the vagus nerve strengthens it and disrupts the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system. Regularly exercising the vagus nerve promotes a strong and healthy vagal tone, which helps ward off the negative effects of stress.
Supporting and stimulating the vagus nerve is a great way to support optimal gut health. The following activities can support a healthy vagal tone. You can pick and choose from the list or incorporate all of them into your daily routine! Pay attention to your stress levels and the feelings in your body. Take time out to relax, de-stress, and do what feels right for you.
ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING
Pranayama refers to yogic breath work.
Here’s a simple pranayama exercise you can do anywhere:
- Place your right thumb on the outside of your right nostril, closing it off.
- Inhale fully through your left nostril.
- Holding your breath, use your right ring finger to close off your left nostril and remove your thumb from your right nostril.
- Exhale fully through your right nostril.
- Keeping your ring finger on your left nostril, inhale fully through your right nostril.
- Holding at the top of the breath, switch fingers again, putting your thumb on the outside of your right nostril and removing the ring finger from the left.
- Exhale fully through your left nostril.
This is one round. Continue for 5–10 rounds, or until you feel relaxed.
The cold plunge is a practice that exists in many cultures. This practice is done to help build the immune system by increasing resilience to stress (the shock of going from hot to cold) and supporting the body’s ability to transition between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
To do a cold plunge, immerse your body in warm water for five minutes. Then immediately transition to cold water for 20 seconds. A less drastic approach is to rinse your face with very cold water right after a hot shower or bath. Many spas also have hot and cold plunge pools you can dip in and out of.
Making a practice of slowly and fully inhaling and exhaling each breath helps slow down the body and combat stress, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating the vagus nerve.1 It’s not realistic to breathe like this all the time, but it’s a great habit to consciously employ when you catch yourself stressed and wound up. Additionally, creating a deep breathing practice, even just for 5–10 minutes once or twice a day can create a profound shift in your nervous system and stress levels.
Walking or doing yoga or tai chi are great ways to gently move the body and stimulate the vagus nerve through calming exercise.1 Here’s a great all-levels yoga sequence for the vagus nerve. Demonstrations of poses can be found online.
- Several rounds of sun salutations
- Sun salutation leading into crescent pose
- Sun salutation leading into chair pose with a twist and arms stretched wide • Triangle pose
- Reverse warrior pose
- Cat stretch
- Reverse tabletop
- Legs up the wall
- Reclined twist to the right
- Reclined twist to the left
Bonus: Include some singing, chanting, and/or breath work. This is my favorite way to induce joy and stimulate my vagus nerve!
LAUGHTER STIMULATES THE VAGUS NERVE!
Laughter can stimulate the vagus nerve and have positive effects on heart rate. After all, they say laughter is the best medicine – especially a deep belly laugh! Have you ever heard of a laughing yoga class? Find out if there’s one near you or look for one online. The power of group laughter is infectious. Even if you are faking it at first, your mind will follow the lead of your facial expression and body, and you’ll find yourself in a state of true laughter in no time.
How can you add more laughter into your daily life? Do you take time to watch funny television shows or movies? Do you spend time with people who crack you up? Could you swap out an educational podcast for a stand-up comedy routine a few times a week? Take some time to find your funny!
Meditation has a positive effect on stress, mood, and heart rate, which support the parasympathetic nervous system. A 2010 study found that the increase in positive emotions resulting from meditation led to stronger feelings of social closeness and increased vagal tone.2 Even 5–10 minutes of meditation a day can have a significant effect.
Find a meditation practice that works best for you – whether that involves using an app or a guided meditation, sitting quietly in nature or lighting a candle and resting your gaze upon it. You do not need to be atop a mountain beneath a sacred tree to meditate1 Meditation is a bio-individual experience. It’s less important how you do it as long as you take the time to carve out a regular practice.
Record your emotions and thoughts after meditation. See if this practice has a noticeable impact on your stress levels and emotions after a week or two.
Releasing positive tones through your vocal cords can stimulate the vagus nerve. This can be done through singing, humming, or chanting. How can you incorporate this into your daily routine? Can you sing in the shower or in your car on the way to and from work? Hum while doing chores? What about chanting “om” as part of your morning ritual? You can get even more benefits by doubling down and doing this as part of a social activity, such as attending weekly karaoke night with friends or joining a choir. What resonates with you?
1. Howland, R. H. (2014). Vagus nerve stimulation. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep 1(2), 64–73. Retrieved from pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24834378
2. Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., . . . Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychol Sci 24(7), 1123–1132. Retrieved from doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827
3. Kalyani, B. G., Venkatasubramanian, G., Arasappa, R., Rao, N. P., Kalmady, S. V., Behere, R. V., . . . Gangadhar, B. N. (2011). Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study. I J Yoga 4(1), 3–6. Retrieved from pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21654968
© 2018, 2021 Integrative Nutrition, LLC.