If you’ve done even a little scrolling through the health and wellness side of TikTok, the term “vagus nerve” (which currently has over 78 million views) might ring a bell. On the other hand, if you’ve managed to avoid the latest social media addiction, you might be thinking “huh?” right about now.
Nerves are one of the most ubiquitous yet forgotten parts of the body, so it’s no surprise — and a sign of our times – that it takes going viral for most of us to be introduced to one of the longest and most important of them. Sometimes referred to as the “information superhighway,” the vagus nerve is like the queen of the nervous system: it carries information to nearly every major system in the body.
But this standout nerve is important beyond just understanding your own Health 101. It turns out, the vagus nerve holds the key to a coveted superpower: de-escalating stress.
Getting Up Close and Personal with the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves which are found in the back of the brain and are tied to the senses. For example, one of the cranial nerves controls eye movements, one enables your sense of smell, and another is associated with taste. The vagus nerve is the overachiever of the bunch, pulling double duty in more ways than one.
“Vagus means ‘wandering’, and in this situation, it refers to [the vagus nerves’] many connections to organs and systems. It connects to the heart, stomach, lungs, major blood vessels, and intestines,” says Dr. Tom Ingegno, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, and owner of Charm City Integrative Health. Instead of running in a straight line between two points like many other nerves do, there are two vagus nerves – one on your left side, the other on the right. These two nerves spread throughout the body like the roots of a plant in the ground.
The many aspects of your health that the vagus nerve is involved in include:
Digestion:The term “gut feeling” actually has biological roots. Information is passed from the brain to the gut and vice versa via the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain axis. Recent research has begun to uncover how interconnected our gut microbiomes and brains really are, which is largely thanks to the work of the vagus nerve.
Hormone production: This nerve also plays an important role in the production of several hormones related to digestion and metabolism, including ghrelin (the hormone that gives you feelings of fullness after a big meal), testosterone, and oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Studies show that when you are less stressed, you’re able to produce more oxytocin in your GI tract. (On the other hand, when you’re experiencing a stress response, you may experience digestive issues, as digestion isn’t seen as imminently necessary when it comes to survival.)
Immune system: As your body’s information highway, the vagus nerve is a key player in your immune system response. A recent study has also shown that stimulating this nerve may help to calm this response and reduce inflammation.
Various sensory and motor functions: Taste, speech, and your ability to swallow are just some of the other things the vagus nerve has its roots in.
But Most Importantly…
While the vagus nerve is a bit of a busy body when it comes to your health, its principal function is to help regulate the autonomic nervous system, aka your fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses.
We’ve all heard about how bad modern-day stress is for our bodies. Thanks to evolution, our bodies read every little stressor in our lives like it’s a tiger about to attack. When these moments of stress happen repeatedly without a break, your body remains in flight-or-flight mode longer than is healthy, eating up resources that are needed in other places and for other functions, like your digestion.
“If we think about everything we physically feel when we are relaxed or stressed, the vagus nerve plays a role in those functions,” Ingegno says. The nerve is responsible for regulating heart rate and certain hormones and it’s closely associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
While the vagus nerve is involved in responding to stress, it’s also responsible for telling your body when it’s time to calm the eff down, or more scientifically put, when it’s time to exit fight or flight. It’s basically the body’s natural chill pill…which is where its ability to be a superpower comes in. If you know how to tap into the nerve’s potential, it can be a powerful tool for helping you relax.
You Can Stimulate the Vagus Nerve to Find Peace
Like your most calming friend, the vagus nerve is responsible for reminding the rest of the body that it’s safe now and can rest. But also like a friend, the nerve doesn’t automatically know that it’s time to jump in and cut off your stress response; you can think of stimulating the vagus nerve as texting your friend to ask her to talk you down.
The good news is that activating your vagus nerve is enjoyable and easy to do – most naturally relaxing activities help to stimulate and therefore strengthen this key player. “Any therapy, activity, or practice that is calming for a person will play a role in helping to improve the vagus nerve’s health,” Ingegno says.
Some common techniques that can activate this superpower are:
Breathwork, especially when you exhale longer than you inhale
Mild exercise, including yoga, tai chi, and Qigong
Acupuncture, massage, and cupping
Humming, chanting, and gargling
Listening to calming music
There are videos on TikTok of people talking about icing their vagus nerves, and while it seems like just another social media trend, there’s actually some real science there: the theory is that dunking the face in cold water or running an ice cube on the face and neck can activate the “human diving response” which, like cold plunging, lowers the heart rate to promote relaxation (and is also distracting enough to stop thinking about anything stressful).
Having positive, empathetic thoughts and connecting with friends and loved ones also helps to activate the vagus nerve thanks to the release of oxytocin, as can laughing and even eating more of certain nutrients like zinc and Omega-3s.
The next time you feel stuck in a stress response after an annoying meeting, an argument with a loved one, sitting in a traffic jam or any other everyday stressor, try tapping into your vagus nerve with one of these activities. You may be surprised by how much better you feel and how much more quickly you’re able to get back to the nirvana of focused calm.