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How Your Gut’s Vagus Nerve Can Help Relieve Anxiety

by Dawn Yanek · October 18, 2022
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Wish you could banish those nagging, anxious thoughts swirling in your head in mere seconds? If you learn a few key vagus nerve exercises, that just might be possible.

Anxiety is the worst. Your mind is racing, your heart feels like it’s going to pound right out of your chest, and you just cannot calm down. We’ve all been there, and we’d do anything to get rid of that feeling—and, ideally, get rid of it fast. According to promising new research and thousands of TikTok videos, vagus nerve exercises may be the key to feeling better within seconds.

Never heard of vagus nerve stimulation? If you’ve seen videos of people dunking their faces in bowls of ice-cold water to de-stress, that’s what you’re watching. This TikTok hack supposedly calms you down by activating the body’s vagus nerve, a super important nerve that extends from your brain to your belly and affects a whole host of bodily functions. Proponents say it can also boost your mood and even combat depression, and a cold-water dunk is just one way to get it going.

But can vagal nerve stimulation really improve mental health? Or is this just a case of a TikTok fad combined with wishful thinking? We took a closer look into what the science says about vagus nerve exercises.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve, also called the 10th cranial nerve, is the longest cranial nerve in the body. But this is a bit of a misnomer: It actually refers to two bundles of nerves, composed of thousands of nerve fibers, and it connects your brain to your gut and everything in between. If you want to trace part of its path, touch your earlobes and move your fingers down either side of your neck; it passes by your carotid artery and jugular vein. In your torso, the vagus nerve’s fibers branch out toward your organs, letting your brain know what’s going on with each of them and attempting to regulate any issues. 

Vagus Nerve and Anxiety: How it Can Help

So, what does the vagus nerve have to do with anxiety? There are a few factors involved. The vagus nerve is a major part of the gut-brain axis, a burgeoning area of research for mental health professionals. Look no further than those butterflies in your stomach or GI problems when you’re anxious for signs of this connection.

The vagus nerve is “a crucial component of your parasympathetic nervous system,” says Ashwini Nadkarni, MD, Associate Vice Chair of Wellness and Assistant Medical Director of Brigham Psychiatry Specialties at Harvard University. “[That] part of the nervous system plays a key role in ‘rest and digest,’ or a set of functions that enable us to relax after a period of stress.” In other words, it’s supposed to help us calm us down when something freaks us out. The vagus nerve also affects heart rate, digestion, breathing, the immune system, and more—all of which can affect both anxiety and depression.

But that’s only one part of this complex equation. Our body’s response to anxiety and the proper functioning of our vagus nerve also includes the release of neurotransmitters like epinephrine and norepinephrine and how they relate to trauma and stress. 

So how do you ensure your vagus nerve is in tip-top shape? Improving vagal tone can bring balance to a system that’s out of whack. 

What is Vagal Tone?

vagus nerve exercises breathing

Vagal tone refers to the activity and strength of the vagus nerve. An extensive review of studies in Frontiers in Psychiatry shows just how effective healthy vagal tone may be. The vagus nerve is basically your body’s regulator, and it operates via three different pathways to fight inflammation. Plus, as noted earlier, it helps coordinate your breathing and your heart rate, so when it’s working properly, it gets both of these back down to normal levels quickly.

If you have strong vagal tone, you are able to calm down more effectively and quickly after a stressful situation. Low vagal tone means that your vagus nerve is not functioning optimally.

So, aside from your ability (or inability) to relax, how can you tell if you have high or low vagal tone? “Because of the variety of functions it regulates, vagus nerve problems can present with many symptoms,” says Dr. Nadkarni. “People may have abdominal pain or bloating or experience acid reflux, loss of appetite, nausea/vomiting, difficulty swallowing, or changes in their heart rate or blood pressure—it depends on which part of the vagus is affected.” 

Doctors can also get an idea of what your vagal tone is like by examining your heart rate. According to a study published in the journal World Psychiatry in 2021, people who don’t have much variability between heartbeats have low vagal tone—something that’s also associated with serious issues like heart failure, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Another method of assessing vagal tone involves checking your gag reflex; a weak gag reflex indicates low vagal tone.

What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus nerve stimulation basically entails waking up your vagus nerve with some sort of external stimuli so that a relaxation response kicks in. Depending on how you go about this, you can see results within seconds. And the more you do it, the stronger your vagal tone will become and the more your body and your brain will remember how to do this without prompting. 

When doctors talk about vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), however, they’re generally referring to interventions in a medical setting that involve an implantable device that stimulates the vagus nerve with electrical impulses. The FDA has approved the use of VNS in 1997 for epilepsy and in 2005 for treatment-resistant depression. A five-year observational study of people with severe depression published in 2017 in the American Journal of Psychiatry found a 27 percent cumulative improvement in the participants who used VNS treatments versus the “treatment-as-usual group,” as well as a nearly 18 percent remission rate.  

There are also plenty of ways to stimulate the vagus nerve using noninvasive techniques, though some experts question their validity: While these methods might elicit relaxation, are they truly stimulating the vagal nerve? More research is needed, but some medical professionals say these methods are worth trying, given the fact that there’s little risk and a whole lot of potential reward to trying vagus nerve exercises.

How to Stimulate The Vagus Nerve

vagus nerve exercises yoga

As noted above, most of the research to date has focused on surgical VNS. However, the vagus nerve exercises below do have scientific reasoning and research behind them, even if they weren’t studied in controlled environments or for anxiety, per se. But try them, and you just might find yourself breathing a little easier. 

Cold Water Immersion

The cold-water face dunk is all about simulating the “diving reflex,” which slows the heart rate and constricts blood vessels, sending blood to the brain and lungs. You can also achieve this effect almost instantly by taking a cold shower or splashing your face with cold water. One recent study found that cold water on the neck, cheek, and forearm slowed participants’ heart rates and soothed stress-related symptoms, while another from 2010 showed that simply drinking cold water worked similar magic. 

Vagal Nerve Icing

This is similar to cold water immersion, but it’s more localized. Grab an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas), lay down, and put it in the center of your chest. Yep, that’s it. The cold will stimulate your vagus nerve, which, in turn, will slow your heart rate. Some fans of this method say it’s a handy trick when you have insomnia that will send you back in dreamland in no time.

Yoga

Studies have shown that yoga can help with anxiety and depression, and some research even suggests that certain yoga practices can stimulate the vagus nerve directly. This is likely a combination of the poses, the deep breathing involved, and some of the vocalizations. (More on the vocalizations below.) Again, while breathing may or may not stimulate the vagus nerve, it can certainly help calm you down regardless.

Humming and Singing

Music soothes the savage beast, which is a pretty apt description of your brain when you’re feeling anxious. But while listening to music might calm you or take your mind off your worries, humming or singing may take things a step further by stimulating your vagus nerve. As Dr. Nadkarni notes, this has everything to do with anatomy. Your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, so when you’re vibrating them by humming or singing (or chanting “om” in a yoga class), it gets your vagus nerve going. 

Vagus Nerve Massage

There are a slew of vagus nerve exercises that you can find online to help improve vagal tone, but as noted, they’re not fully vetted by scientific studies. Many involve the ears and start by using a finger to make small, gentle circles within the external folds of your ear (the concha) and the little bit (the tragus) that covers your external ear canal. From there, you can work your way down the sides of your throat with a light touch. Alternatively, you can massage your feet, stretch your soles and rotate your ankles, according to the principles of reflexology. 

Diet 

“Because of the connections between the intestine and the vagus nerve,” says Dr. Nadkarni, “good dietary choices, such as through a Mediterranean diet, can certainly promote healthy vagal tone.” After all, a low-fat, low-carbohydrate diet can lead to less inflammation in the gut, and that can help the vagus nerve work optimally and handle stress better. According to a study published in the BMJ, prebiotics and probiotics can also ease depression by increasing the gut’s “good bacteria,” though the jury is still out on anxiety.

The Takeaway

Anxiety is complex, and vagus nerve exercises alone can’t eradicate it. Of course, it’s essential to work with a mental health professional to manage anxiety or depression. Still, for life’s everyday bumps in the road, a quick fix when you really need it, or a longer-term way to shake things off more easily, stimulating your vagus nerve can be one more weapon in your arsenal against stress.


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