Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve to Reduce Stress!

brain health healthy eating healthy living immunity morning practice resilience stress-free Feb 11, 2024

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is a vital communication line in your body, connecting your brain to many important organs like the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines. It's like a control centre that helps regulate various automatic functions you don't consciously think about, such as breathing, digestion, and your heartbeat.

Vagus is Latin for “wanderer,” an appropriate name for the longest cranial nerve in the body.  It is the source of your “gut feelings,” so pay attention!

The vagus nerve has two main roles:

Inflammatory Control: The vagus nerve also has a say in your body's immune response. It can help calm down inflammation, which is your body's way of reacting to things like injuries or infections.

Relaxation Response: It's in charge of the “rest and digest” mode. When things are calm, it slows down your heart rate, helps with digestion, and promotes a sense of relaxation.  

This means that we want to be able to activate the Vagus Nerve when we are feeling overly stressed!

The best approach for good health is to develop a daily routine to support the vagus nerve (see below).

Mammalian Nervous System

The mammalian nervous system is a complex biological organ consisting of a network of cells that reach every organ and part of the body, to conduct impulses back and forth to control essential physiological responses to internal and external stimuli.

It is divided into the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), with the PNS controlling both voluntary (somatic NS) and what were presumed to be involuntary (autonomic NS) behaviours.

Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic NS is the part of the nervous system responsible for functions usually not consciously directed such as breathing, heartbeat, digestion.

Historically, it was pictured as a two-part antagonistic system: when the Sympathetic is activated, the PNS is not; when we can turn on Parasympathetic calming there is less Sympathetic activation. 

  • Sympathetic: Detecting risk; mobilization for fight or flight; the ON switch
  • Parasympathetic: Rest, digest and restore; the OFF switch

One of the benefits of Restorative Yoga is to turn off the SNS and turn on the PNS!

Polyvagal Theory

A new theory, coined the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges, identifies a third type of nervous system response that Porges calls the “social engagement system” that operates out of the Vagus Nerve, which controls a mixture of activation and calming.  

Rather than being in balance, the three systems respond sequentially to circumstances, both safe environments and perceived threats.

The Polyvagal theory divides the Parasympathetic NS into 2 aspects, determined by their location with respect to the Diaphragm, which is a thin muscle found in the chest cavity that separates the abdomen (belly) from the upper chest.

  • The Ventral Vagal PNS is found above the diaphragm, and controls organs and systems in this area including facial muscles, as well as the heart and lungs.
  • The Dorsal Vagal PNS is found below the diaphragm, and controls organs in this area.

Ventral Vagal Nerve - Above the diaphragm

  • Formed as we evolved from ancient reptiles to mammals out of a need to nurture our young - more evolved
  • Myelinated (has a covering for both protection and to increase speed of nerve transmission)
  • Primary regulator of heart rate and muscles in the face and neck, including nerves to control facial expression
  • Social Engagement necessary to coexist and work in communities
  • Must be in a safe environment to be activated

Dorsal Vagal Nerve - Below the diaphragm

  • Oldest system, found in both reptiles and mammals, reflecting the need for survival
  • Supplies nerves to the visceral organs below the diaphragm including the stomach, liver, spleen, kidneys, gallbladder, urinary bladder, small intestines, pancreas and the ascending and transverse parts of the colon.
  • Nerve is non-myelinated (no protective covering)
  • Immobilization - feigning death

As Stephen Porges says: “When we are challenged, we start moving down the evolutionary ladder and in evolutionary stages we move from this safety engagement with the face, and with the myelinated vagus. We move to a more defensive system of the sympathetic nervous system.”

We now look at the Autonomic Nervous System in this way:

The three systems act sequentially to perceived threats:

  • Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal: Social engagement, when feeling safe; able to Rest, Digest and Restore
  • Sympathetic: Detecting risk; Mobilization for fight or flight
  • Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal: Immobilization and shutdown

How to Activate the Ventral Vagal System

Must create a safe environment:

  • Make eye contact
  • Use pleasant facial expressions
  • Soothing human voice
  • Familiar people and surroundings
  • Develop relationships


Home Practice:

Find a comfortable seat in a quiet location, and try one or two of these practices for the next few days.  See if you notice any difference in your response to anything you might consider stressful!

1.  Chanting

Vocal activities produce a vibration in the neck, which stimulates the vagus nerve in a beneficial way.

  • Chanting, such as “Om”
  • Humming
  • Gargling
  • Playing a wind instrument

2.  Bhramari (Humming)  

  • Plug your ears and hum.
  • When you plug your ears, the humming feels really loud in your head and then you're going to feel a vibration head and your heart. 
  • Then as you're humming take the tongue to the roof of your mouth and all of a sudden you'll feel the energy go up to your head and you'll bring that bliss from your heart to your head.

For more info on this and other natural health topics:

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