What’s so great about the vagus nerve? It turns out this 10th cranial nerve, also known as the “wandering nerve,” is the longest cranial nerve in our body. It branches out from the base of the brain to vital organs like the heart, lungs and digestive system, playing a critical role in regulating bodily functions. Exercising the vagus nerve through various practices can lead to a plethora of benefits, influencing our whole being.
The vagus nerve operates as a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” response. It opposes the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system. Its extensive reach impacts numerous vital functions, making it a significant player in maintaining overall health and balance. On the other hand, vagal dysfunction can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, type II diabetes, depression and anxiety.
Benefits of exercising the vagus nerve
- Stress reduction: regulates the body’s stress response, reducing cortisol levels and promoting relaxation, leading to reduced anxiety and an improved mood.
- Improved heart health: influences heart rate and blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart-related issues.
- Enhanced digestion: stimulates the release of digestive enzymes and promotes intestinal motility, alleviating digestive problems like bloating, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Better immune function: regulates inflammation in the body and enhances immune function, reducing the risk of chronic inflammation-related diseases.
- Increased emotional resilience: improves emotional regulation and resilience, making it easier to cope with stress, handle difficult emotions and experience an overall sense of well-being.
Ways to exercise the vagus nerve
- Deep breathing techniques: practicing deep, slow breathing; consider mindfulness meditation or diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
- Aerobic exercises: regular aerobic activities like running, cycling, swimming or dancing, especially interval and endurance training, which also improves heart rate variability.
- Yoga and tai chi: combining physical movement with controlled breathing, these mind-body practices offer an ideal environment to optimize the vagus nerve.
- Singing and chanting: engaging in vocal exercises like singing or chanting promotes relaxation and overall well-being.
- Laughing: increases heart rate variability and mood; it stimulates the vagus nerve by encouraging diaphragmatic breathing. Who doesn’t love a good laugh?!
- Cold exposure: exposure to conditions like a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face increases vagus nerve activation and stimulates the parasympathetic system.
- Stretching: targeted stretching exercises that stretch and improve vagus nerve mobility, as noted below. Figure 1 is demonstrating phase 1. Tilt your head towards the left, while applying gentle overpressure with your left hand. Look in the opposite direction with your eyes. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat on the other side. Repeat 3x each side. Figure 2 demonstrates phase 2. Perform the phase 1 exercise, while adding your other hand at your waist to promote a side bend. These exercises may trigger a yawn, meaning your parasympathetic system has been activated.
The vagus nerve serves as a powerful bridge between our physical and mental well-being. Exercising this extraordinary neural connection offers numerous benefits like stress reduction, improved heart health, enhanced digestion and emotional resilience. By incorporating vagus nerve-activating practices into our daily routines, we can tap into its hidden power and experience its profound impact. So, let us embrace the opportunity to unlock its true potential within us. Our bodies and minds will thank us for it!