Got stress? Why you should care about the Vagus nerve + how to regulate it

Of all the things that can get in the way of healing, stress is arguably the #1 obstacle that my patients face. That’s why using techniques to support your vagus nerve is needed.

Think you’re not stressed but experiencing some of the following symptoms? Then your vagus nerve may be playing a role:
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• Depression
• Anxiety
• Chronic Fatigue or poor memory or focus
• Insomnia or trouble sleeping
•Gasteroparesis, also known as delayed gastric emptying
• Heartburn, reflux, gastritis or GERD
• Dizziness/Fainting
• B12 Deficiency
• Chronic Inflammation
• Endometriosis
• Fast or slow Heart Rate
• Difficulty Swallowing

The vagus nerve is a key player in the body’s stress response. It is a long nerve that connects the brain to the organs in the body, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system and it plays a critical role in regulating many bodily functions, including heart rate, breathing, digestion, and immune response. It is the longest cranial nerve, running through the neck and throat, and even as far as the uterus.

When a person experiences stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, which triggers the “fight or flight” (or freeze, or fawn) response, and the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and a decrease in digestive activity. This response is designed to help us deal with acute stressors, like running away from a predator.

However, chronic stress can lead to the prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which can have negative effects on the body. This is where the vagus nerve comes in. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response.

The vagus nerve works to counteract the sympathetic nervous system, slowing down the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, and increasing digestive activity. This helps to promote a sense of relaxation and calm in the body. 

In addition to its role in regulating the stress response, the vagus nerve also plays an important role in immune function. It helps to regulate inflammation in the body, which is a key component of the immune response. 

Chronic stress can lead to dysfunction of the vagus nerve, which can contribute to a number of health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive disorders, autoimmune disorders, migraines, and heart disease.

There are several techniques and practices that have been shown to help stimulate and improve the function of the vagus nerve. Here are a few to consider incorporating into your week:

  1. Deep breathing: Slow, deep breathing exercises have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Try taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, making sure to exhale for longer than you inhale.
  2. Meditation: Mindfulness practices like meditation can help to promote relaxation and reduce stress, which in turn can stimulate the vagus nerve. There are many different types of meditation, so find one that works for you and try to make it a regular part of your routine.
  3. Yoga: Yoga combines physical postures with breathing techniques and mindfulness practices, making it a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. There are many different styles of yoga, so find one that feels good for your body and level of experience.
  4. Singing or chanting: Activities that involve singing or chanting can help to stimulate the vagus nerve, as they involve controlled breathing and vocalization. You don’t have to be a great singer to reap the benefits of this practice – just sing or chant along to your favorite songs or mantras!
  5. Cold exposure: Exposure to cold temperatures has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and improve its function. Try taking cold showers or baths, or simply splashing your face with cold water.
  6. Acupuncture: Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing practice that involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body. Some studies have shown that acupuncture can help to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. Existing patients can book in here.
  7. Exercise: Regular exercise has been shown to improve vagus nerve function, possibly due to its effects on reducing inflammation and promoting relaxation.
  8. Laughter: Laughter is a powerful tool for reducing stress and promoting relaxation, and it has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve as well.
  9. Probiotics: The gut microbiome plays a role in regulating vagus nerve function, and taking probiotics or eating fermented foods can help to improve gut health and promote vagus nerve function.
  10. Omega-3 fatty acids: Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, has been shown to improve vagus nerve function and reduce inflammation in the body.
  11. Fasting: Fasting, or abstaining from food for a period of time, has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and promote autophagy, a process by which the body cleans out damaged cells and stimulates the growth of new ones. However, intermittent or prolonged fasting is not appropriate for everyone.
  12. Social connection: Positive social interactions and connections with others have been shown to improve vagus nerve function and reduce stress.
  13. Mindful eating: Taking time to savour and enjoy your meals, and being mindful of the sensations in your body as you eat, can help to activate the vagus nerve and promote digestive health.
  14. Sound therapy: Listening to certain types of music, like classical music or music with specific sound frequencies, binaural beats: beats, has been shown to improve vagus nerve function and promote relaxation.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s body is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. If you’re interested in improving the function of your vagus nerve, it’s a good idea to try a variety of techniques and see what feels good and works best for you and it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider before trying any new treatments or therapies!

One of the focuses I take in my practice for toning the vagus nerve is addressing any issues at the level of the gut, especially imbalances in the microbiome, such as SIBO. If you experience any IBS, diarrhea or constipation, bloating, GERD, heartburn, nausea, or gastritis (pain or burning at the breastbone), consider taking the SIBO quiz here.

Dr. Willow

- Dr. Willow

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I help women achieve optimal digestive and hormonal wellness through a root cause, individualized approach to medicine that utilizes functional lab testing, diet and lifestyle modification, nutritional and herbal medicine, and acupuncture to re-establish lasting health.


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