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What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, which connects your brain to many important organs including the gut, heart, and lungs. In Latin, the word “Vagus” means “wanderer”—as in, the nerve that wanders all over your body.
The vagus nerve is an essential component of your parasympathetic nervous system which affects rest and digestion. The nerve influences your digestion, breathing, and heart rate—all of which contribute to your ability to manage anxiety.
The way to take care of your vagus nerve is by paying attention to its tone. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that portrays the activity of your vagus nerve.
When you increase your vagal tone, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes activated and your body develops an increased ability to relax after stress. Scientific research has proven that when you increase your vagal tone, your physical and mental health improve.
“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
There are many contributing factors to a low vagal tone. For instance, mothers who experience depression, anxiety and intense emotions during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity, which results in low vagal activity for the unborn child, as well as low dopamine and serotonin levels.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is also a critical factor here, as your vagal tone emulates it. HRV is a measure of the changes in the intervals between your heartbeats, and is a useful metric for evaluating stress. When you’re at rest, it’s better to have a high HRV—this means your stress levels are low. However, when you’re active, you’ll want to have a lower HRV, as this signals a lower stress level.
If your vagal tone is low, you can increase it by stimulating the vagus nerve. This will allow your body to respond more effectively to emotional and physiological symptoms caused by your brain or mental illness. Try these techniques:
- Cold exposure
- Deep and slow breathing
- Singing, humming, chanting, and gargling
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Socialization and laughing