Are you aware of the nerve with many different branches that wanders from your brainstem to your belly and influences your body’s relaxation response? It’s your vagus nerve! Sounds like “Vegas.” Listen here for how it’s pronounced. Luckily what happens in the vagus nerve doesn’t stay in the vagus nerve!
You don’t need to be a high roller to indulge and connect with the valuable benefits your vagus nerve provides. It’s available to play 24/7, and playing won’t cost you a penny. Turning on your vagus nerve is known to leave folks feeling relaxed and up rather than stressed and depressed. Over time, the positive effects of a stimulated vagus nerve just might even save you-out-of pocket costs incurred by going to your doctor for stress related issues. Here’s the rub—the response isn’t automatic. You need to turn on your vagus nerve yourself by choosing to focus on slow—deep—breathing.
You and the house you’re in—your body—form a win-win relationship by choosing to spend time deep breathing. Under stress, your sympathetic nervous system antes up to cause your body to go into a flight or fight response. Constant stress—that many experience on a daily basis with no relief—gambles away your body’s ability to heal and thrive.
When the vagus nerve is activated, it turns on the parasympathetic nervous system that pacifies the stress response and promotes relaxation. The vagus nerve promotes acetylcholine—a powerful chemical that transfers nerve signals—throughout your body to cause the stress response to fold and allows the body’s healing response to dominate.
The upside of using your breath to activate your vagus nerve has many stress-relieving qualities!
Here are 8 healthful benefits of playing with your vagus nerve:
- Allows for digestion and absorption of nutrients
- Improves short-term memory (The decline in acetylcholine is linked to Alzheimer’s.)
- Counters systemic inflammation (known to contribute to many diseases)1
- Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
- Improves feelings of anxiety and depression
- Boosts immune system
- Repairs brain tissue (The vagus nerve can stimulate stem cells to produce new cells and repair and rebuild your own organs.2)
- Oxygen produces endorphins (feel good hormone).
Steps to Activate Your Vagus Nerve:
- Inhale from your diaphragm.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Take slow and steady breaths. Try 5‒7 breaths per minute.
- Exhale longer than your inhale (Important!!!).
Note on Digestion:
Avoid eating in a rush. Try to take mindful deep, slow breaths to trigger your vagus nerve before you eat. An activated vagus nerve produces more saliva in your mouth, promotes stomach and intestinal enzymes for improved digestion, helps contract muscles in the digestive tract to help food move along and even assists with elimination. Even if you invest in eating healthful foods, if your body is not able to absorb, assimilate, and eliminate properly, then you’re not getting the full benefits of your healthy food choices. Keep in mind that your digestive system plays an important role in your female hormonal balance and female organ health.
For those who are thinking, “I don’t like to breathe deeply,” I would suggest you might not have tried it enough. Don’t think you have the time? Try taking some deep breaths when you’re in the shower or on your commute. Customize your breathing to what works best with your schedule. Approach your mindful breathing as a game, where the only way to lose is if you don’t deal yourself a few minutes a day to breathe deeply. Over time, you might notice you want to play the game all the time.
 Pavlov, V.A., and K.J. Tracey. 2005. The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. Brain Behav Immun 19 (6):493-99.
 Theise, N.D., and R. Harris. 2006. Postmodern biology: (adult) (stem) cells are plastic, stochastic, complex, and uncertain. Handb Exp Pharmacol (174):389-408.