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  • Writer's pictureDr. Watts

Vagus Nerve - Meet Your New Best Friend

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

I have had a passion for years now for everything “vagus." I should have been a vagus-ologist and spend all day thinking about the vagus nerve. But I would have had to go to medical school and do all kinds of things that I do not have the stomach for, such as look at blood and sores and infections. So, I guess I chose right. As a psychologist I can learn and talk about the vagus all day long without having to look at things that make my stomach lurch.




So What’s the Deal with the Vagus Nerve


First, let’s be clear that Vegas is no relation to “Vagus” -- what happens to the vagus does not stay in the vagus. (You will see why as we continue.) I know, lame joke, but somebody had to say it!


Back to serious. The vagus is the 10th and longest cranial nerve. The word ‘vagus’ comes from the latin word which means “wanderer,” and indeed the vagus nerve is a wanderer. It exits at the base of the skull and travels along the carotid artery on both sides of the body, connecting the brain with numerous organs and systems along the way: larynx (voice box) and vocal chords; palate muscles (the back of the roof of the mouth); outer ear and tympanum (ear drum); heart; lungs; stomach; pancreas; spleen; small and large intestines.


If you have seen a drawing of the human nervous system, you know that there are nerves in every inch of your body, and every one of them has the important job of carrying electrical impulses and communication between the brain and the body. But no other single nerve connects with as many organs and systems as the vagus!


This means that the health of the vagus nerve affects systems throughout your body and that seemingly unrelated dysfunctions are related to the vagus nerve and its functioning. For example, the suppressed activity of the vagus nerve can be a reason for hoarse voice or even loss of voice, throat constriction and the sensation of choking, heart palpitations, digestive disturbances, such as acid reflux, nausea, and diarrhea or constipation, as well as anxiety and depression.


MOST IMPORTANT PARAGRAPH:


On a very basic level, when the vagus nerve is happy, you are happy. When vagal tone is optimal, you are relaxed; your heart rate is normal; your breathing is steady without jagged intakes; your digestive system works well, without nausea or indigestion; you have regular bowel movements, without constipation or diarrhea; you sleep well; you are in a good mood and are not bothered by anxiety or depression. When the vagus is not happy, you’re not happy! You feel unwell from a whole variety of problems and dysfunctions. What makes the vagus nerve unhappy, you might ask? The same thing that makes you unhappy - CHRONIC STRESS! Chronic stress suppresses the activation of the vagus nerve, which then disrupts the functioning of all those organs mentioned above, hence, illness, physical dysfunction, and emotional distress.


Those are the basic facts. If you want to learn how this all happens, read on.


The Basic Biological Explanation


For this discussion we will only talk about two parts of the nervous system:


​SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (SNS)

PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (PSNS)

known as the Fight-or-Flight response

​known as the Rest-and-Digest response

controls the stress response

​controls the relaxation response

release of adrenaline and cortisol

Vagus Nerve is the primary nerve

increased heart rate and blood pressure

​decreased heart rate and blood pressure

​increased muscle tension

relaxed muscles

rapid and shallow breathing

slow deep breathing

anxiety and fear

​calm and composed state of mind

release of glucose and fats for energy

glucose released as needed for tasks



As you can see, the SNS and the PSNS are like the two sides of a coin - because they work in opposition to each other, only one can be active at any given point: you can’t be relaxed and stressed at the same time. When you are under stress, the SNS is activated to help you cope. But the price of coping with stress is the suppression of the PSNS - which means decreased vagal activation. Let’s look at an example.


You are walking in your neighborhood, and, as you turn a corner, you come face to face with a dog. You are instantly flooded with stress hormones because your SNS evaluates the situation as a threat and signals your body to prepare for attack and survival. As you see in the chart, lots of things happen in preparation on a physiological level. Once the SNS kicks into gear, the PSNS (the vagus nerve) is suppressed. Resources are taken from tasks maintenance and building and assigned to crisis and survival.


Then you realize that the dog is leashed and that you are not in danger after all. Your body starts the process of deescalation, during which time the SNS quiets down and the PSNS comes back online. However this reversal process is slow. It can take several hours, even days if you are prone to anxious reactivity, for your body to return to baseline. In contrast, it takes a few seconds for adrenaline to flood your body and get all emergency systems "online."


When stress is isolated, this chain of events functions beautifully to help you cope with urgent demands. When stress is chronic, however, the SNS is turned on chronically, while at the same time the vagus nerve is suppressed. Unfortunately, we live in a world where stress is the norm not the exception. Whether the stress is in your house, in your neighborhood, or across the world, we are all, without a doubt, bombarded relentlessly by chronic stress that continually activates the SNS. Our systems don't even get a chance to clear out the stress hormones and return to baseline. After a while, chronic stress is the baseline, while the vagus nerve is persistently suppressed.

So what is to be done? How can you activate the vagus in spite of all the stress that pushes us into a state of chronic sympathetic arousal.


6 Ways to Care for Your Vagus Nerve.


1. Sing a song


Singing stimulates the laryngeal nerve endings of the vagus nerve, increasing vagal activity, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and creating a sense of calmness and well-being. Can’t sing? No problem. Humming works just as well. Play one of you favorite songs and hum along. Or you can just hum the yoga mantra “OM.” Humming, just like singing, vibrates your vocal cords which stimulates the vagus nerve.


2. Listen to music


The ear drums have vagal nerve endings as well, so when you are listening to music, you are activating the vagus nerve, orchestrating a parasympathetic response that soothes your body into a calm state and quiets an overactive brain. Perhaps not surprisingly, classical music was found to be more calming overall, increasing parasympathetic activation, while heavy metal music was excitatory and increased sympathetic arousal and the stress response.


3. Physical activity


Physical activity and exercise causes activation of the vagus nerve by dispersing the effects of the stress response. Exercise, in whatever form, deactivates the stress response and enables the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The current recommendations for exercise are 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, which comes out to 30 minutes 5 days a week. A brisk walk, dancing, running, interval training, essentially anything that raises your heart rate will work.


4. Yoga


Stretching is an ideal way to increase the vagus nerve activation. It stretches muscles, which releases the tension that builds up in the muscles as a result of stress. It slows down your breath and heart rate. It lowers blood pressure. And, when you couple it with mantra such as humming the sound “ohm” you have an effective way to activate the vagus nerve.




5. Breath work


During times of stress, we take rapid, shallow breaths that are signals of danger to the brain. Exercises that focus on slowing down the breathing and quieting the stress response help activate the vagus nerve. Diaphragmatic breathing is especially beneficial because it stimulates the abdominal branches of the vagus.


There are numerous breathing exercises online, but one of the simplest is the “4-6-8 breathing” exercise: breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, hold for 6, and breathe out through your mouth for 8, making a loud ‘whoosh” sound.


Check this link out https://www.danawattspsychologist.com/post/breath-is-life for a one minute breathing exercise.


6. Eat a healthy diet


A balanced diet of whole food that is rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber and low in processed foods and simple sugars is beneficial for your gut biome. When your gut microorganisms are healthy, the vagus nerve is activated leading to optimal stomach and intestinal functioning.



Now you see that what happens to the vagus does not stay with the vagus, but affects all aspects of your functioning and well-being. As you go through the day, ask yourself how your vagus might be affected negatively by various events taking place in your day and turn to the strategies above to give your vagus a helping hand.




When you take care of your vagus,

your vagus will take care of you!




Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


440-895-1100











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