What exactly is the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves and the longest nerve in your body.
It connects your brain to important organs, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart, and lungs. In fact, the word "vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders through the body, reaching various organs.
The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function, and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
But what you really need to pay special attention to is the "tone" of your vagus nerve. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having a higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.
“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” — Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic.
Perhaps most interesting is that studies have shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious, and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels.
Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other.
If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.
You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these steps:
1. Cold Exposure (If you're too far from cold weather, like most of us right now, try cold showers.)
2. Deep and Slow Breathing (Alternate-nostril breathing has immediate effects.)
3. Singing, Humming, Chanting, and Gargling
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
7. Exercise (You knew this would be on the list.)
9. Socializing and Laughing
Stay well adjusted,
Dr. Dan Kammer