Looking for answers on how to heal the vagus nerve naturally? This is the right place to be!
You’ve probably heard the phrase: “stress is related to 99% of all disease.”
This is because your vagus nerve has something to do with it!
If you struggle with gut issues, anxiety, low energy, skin breakouts, a slow metabolism, immune issues, pre-diabetes or any other inflammatory condition, read on. Let’s chat about what the vagus nerve is, how to test its function and 7 ways on how to heal the vagus nerve naturally.
Vagus Nerve Overview
Your vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, is the longest nerve in your body that is connected directly from your gut to your brain.
The primary job of the vagus nerve is running your autonomic nervous system—the system that controls all body functions; interprets sensory information (threats, fears, joy, love, etc.) and decides what to do with it. The autonomic nervous system is further divided into the parasympathetic division (“rest and digest”) and sympathetic division (“fight or flight”)—both which tell your body when to be stressed and when to chill out (as long as your vagus nerve is working correctly).
For example, if a bear is chasing you in the wild, the vagus nerve interprets fear and activates the stress response—sending adrenaline signals throughout the body, increasing heart rate, making you sweat, suppressing stomach acid production, zapping up glucose and sodium stores, and forcing you to pant and breathe harder. Another example: enjoying your favorite recipes with your family during the holidays. Your vagus nerve may sense a feeling of peace, joy and fond memories, sending you into “rest and digest” mode—relaxed, not stressed, mode (even as you eat pumpkin pie!). The vagus sends you into a calm, homeostatic state.
In short, the vagus can up regulate or down regulate your body’s stress response.
As a review, the top vagus nerve roles include:
- Controls your natural body functions (such as digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, and reflexes—blinking, coughing, sneezing, swallowing, vomiting)
- Supports feelings of safety—both physical safety and being safely emotionally connected to others in your social
- Responds to danger cues to help you fight or fly (fight or flight response).
- Maintains an overall sense of “peace and calm” in the brain and systemically.
- Sending signals between the gut to the brain (the “gut brain axis”
The Gut-Brain Axis
Your vagus nerve is often called body’s “information highway” that delivers messages throughout your body, especially from your gut to your brain and vice versa, from your brain to your gut (also known as the “gut-brain axis”).
In fact, 80% of the communication that happens through the vagus nerve actually comes directly from the gut to the brain—explaining why stress is related to 99% of all disease (since the majority of your disease-fighting immune cells are located in your gut!).
In other words: your gut health greatly affects how you feel—physically and mentally.
If you have gut problems (like leaky gut, SIBO, constipation, inflammation, etc.), then inflammatory signals get sent to your brain, ultimately weakening vagus nerve function and increasing cortisol hormone stress levels.
Likewise, if you have lots of stress in your life, your brain and your HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal glands) also sends signals to throughout your body, impacting your physical health. A stressed out vagus nerve slows digestion and motility, decreases stomach acid and digestive enzyme production, breaks down gut lining tissue, up regulates the immune response and alters fluid balance and electrolytes. Epinephrine and norepinephrine (our “adrenaline” hormones) can also spike, increasing the virulence properties of several pathogens (from bacteria to parasites) as well as nonpathogenic microbes if consistent stress is present without much relief.
The result: Difficulty fully “healing” your body or feeling well (even despite doing “all the things” like eating green things or working out).
Vagus Nerve Malfunction Causes
Common stressors that may disrupt the vagus nerve include:
- Physical and/or psychological traumas (bullying, loss of a loved one, financial distress, job loss, disease, being left out as a kid or picked on, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect, adoption and feeling inadequate, etc.)
- Never slowing down. Burning a candle at both ends (constantly pushing yourself; never taking a break)
- Sleep deprivation
- Low self-esteem—never feeling “good enough”; negative self-talk
- Negative news and social media consumption
- Overtraining or a sedentary lifestyle
- 60+ hour work weeks (no rest)
- Under-eating/restrictive diets
- Reliance on caffeine, sweets or other substances to “function”
- Eating foods you’re intolerant to
- Gut inflammation
- Circadian rhythm dysfunction thanks to blue lights and screens available 24/7
- Not feeling safe (in your environment, home, relationships)
- Loneliness/lack of meaningful connections
- Environmental triggers and toxic exposures (mold, chemicals, tap water)
- Gut infections/pathogens
- Health triggering events (a surgery or procedure, getting sick while traveling, etc.)
The list goes on!
Basically compounded and the accumulation of stress over time—without proper management of that stress— can lead to disrupted vagal nerve function, and, contrary to popular belief, stress is not just mental. It is also physical.
How Stress Affects the Vagus Nerve
Stress impacts every system in the universe—which is crucial to understand when we talk about stress. Again: Although stress is often thought to be mental (“all in you head”), stress actually affects us both mentally and physically.
For instance, a plant can be under stress in a drought—without water. Your favorite Barbie doll encounters stress when your little brother ripped her head off. And our body was under stress when we broke a bone, falling off the monkey bars in the 1st grade. Stress is everywhere. These things do not need a mindset or neural pathways to be under stress.
Likewise, you personally don’t have to feel mentally stressed for your body to be stressed. You can be sitting on a beach in Costa Rica on vacation with seemingly no care in the world, but your body still be stressed—running off 3 to 4 cups of coffee most days, fighting an underlying SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) condition and acne breakouts on your back, sleep deprived from your 6 hours most nights, and thrown off a normal circadian rhythm due to lack of natural sunlight and spending 8 to 10 hours most days on screens.
Ultimately, recognizing that our bodies are stressed can be extremely challenging. This is why vagus nerve dysfunction often gets overlooked and why “stress is related to 99% of all disease.”
How do you know if your vagus nerve is working properly? Moreover how do you improve vagus nerve function? Check out these 3 at-home vagus nerve tests plus 7 steps on how to heal your vagus nerve naturally.
At-Home Vagus Nerve Tests
How well is your vagus nerve working?
Ideally, for optimal function, you want higher vagal tone instead of lower vagal tone.
High vagal tone supports healthy blood sugar regulation, less inflammation (like headaches and skin breakouts), better exercise recovery, coffee-free energy, less anxiety or mood swings, thyroid and hormone balance, improved digestion and more stress resilience. Test and see if you have low vagal tone with these 4 at-home vagus nerve tests.
Assessment #1: Signs & Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction
If it looks like vagus nerve dysfunction and smells like vagus nerve dysfunction, it probably is vagus nerve dysfunction. Common signs and symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction include:
- Chest pains
- Histamine intolerance
- Multiple food sensitivities
- Mast cell activation syndrome
- Balance or coordination issues
- Low energy
- Poor memory
- Diagnosis of ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression or other mental health related condition
- Hoarse or raspy voice
- Trouble swallowing/drinking
- Shortness of breath
- Feel motion sick easily
- Fainting or getting lightheaded easily
- Abnormal heart rate or blood pressure (often low)
- Often report “nothing really helps” (foods, supplements, drugs, etc.)
- Poor methylation
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Gagging without trying
- Decreased stomach acid/enzymes
- Compromised detoxification/liver health
- Nutrient deficiencies
Assessment #2: Say “Ah”
Say “ahhhh”, “ahh, ahh, ahh,” or yawn and look in the mirror.
Observe how your “palate” (back part of your mouth), elevates symmetrically.
Ideally, you want to see both sides of the back of your mouth elevate. If one side’s higher than the other, it doesn’t matter. You just wanna see them both elevate.
Repeat this 10 times. The palate should still move the same, even after 10 contractions. If you can’t do 10, and it starts to weaken, you’ve got some vagus nerve degeneration.
Assessment #3: Check Your Gag Reflex
You can also check your gag reflex. Use a soft cotton swab or toothbrush to tickle the back of the throat on both sides.
This should cause you to slightly gag—not throw up, just have a gag reaction. If you don’t gag or have a delayed response, this may be due to a problem with the vagus nerve.
Assessment #4: Gastric Status
Slow digestion, bloating, constipation and impaired gut motility are signs your vagus nerve is not online.
“Normal” gastric emptying (food from your stomach to your intestines) should be 1-2 hours, but for people with slowed digestion, this can be up to 3 to 4 hours.
Another way to test this is to drink 8 ounces of a fizzy drink or carbonated water. If you feel bloated or pain in your gut within the first 5 to 10 minutes that can also be a sign of poor vagal tone.
Vagus Nerve Exercises
Based on your findings, pick one vagus nerve exercise to do this week, including:
- Gargling water
- Stimulating your gag reflex
- Do a coffee enema at home
How to Heal the Vagus Nerve Naturally: Top 5 Vagus Nerve Exercises
Okay! We’ve covered A LOT of ground…You may be wondering: What now?!
Especially if you discovered your brain-gut connection is a little “offline.”
You’re in luck! There are tons of tactics and exercises you can do at home! I won’t cover them all, but here are 3 action-oriented exercises you can try now to start rewiring your brain….
1. Gargle Water
Gargling water to activate your palate muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. Gargle a large glass of salt water for at least 10-20 seconds each round until you’ve made it through the water and until your eyes form tears.
2. Stimulate a Gag Reflect
Purchase a box of tongue depressors to stimulate your gag reflex throughout the day. Do not jab the back of your throat with the tongue blade and hurt yourself, or use this exercise to throw up…instead just lay the tongue blade on the back of your tongue and push down to activate a gag reflex.
3. Do a Coffee Enema
It may sound weird, but coffee enemas are like sprints for your vagus nerve, reawakening gut motility and vagal nerve function. The clincher: Once you feel a bowel movement coming on, try to hold your bowels in for 10 minutes ideally—or as long as you can, then release. This is called “planking”—simulating that shaking feeling you may get while holding a plank in order to reawaken the brain-gut connection.
4. Chant Loudly, Sing, Talk or Hum
Since the vagus nerve passes through by the vocal cords and the inner ear, vibrations from humming influence your nervous system states. Simply pick a favorite song and hum or sing (loudly) along. Notice and enjoy the sensations in your chest, throat, and head. You can also practice speaking on stage or prepping for a big meeting by strongly projecting with your voice as you practice. Lastly, saying “ommmmmmm” during yoga is about more than just making noise. Effective ‘om’ chanting is associated with the experience of a vibration sensation around the ears and throughout the body—this sensation is transmitted through the vagus nerve and produces limbic (HPA axis) “deactivation.”
5. Breathe Consciously & Deeply
Your breath is one of the most powerful tools you have to manage the nervous system and re-activate the vagus nerve to work for you.
You can go several weeks without food, 3 days without water, but only a few moments without breath. Moreover, deep breathing produces a “peace” response, whereas shallow or rapid breathing produces a “fear” response. Unfortunately, most people with suppressed vagus nerve function don’t breathe deeply enough to overcome stress in their body.
Common signs of improper breathing include:
- Inhaling with your chest
- Mouth breathing
- Tight shoulders and upper neck muscles
- High resting breath rate (over 12 breaths per minute)
- Non-expanding rib cage when you breathe
How to use the power of breath to re-stimulate the vagus nerve:
Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10. Breathe like you are trying to fog a mirror to create the feeling in the throat but inhale and exhale out of the nose sound (in yoga this is called Ujjayi pranayam).
- Nose Breathing
Ideally you want the majority of your breaths to come in through your nose. Mouth breathing elevates the stress response. If you struggle with stuffy sinuses, consider trying a cleansing citrus nasal spray to clear pathogens in your airway.
- 4-7-8 Breathing
Begin by placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind the upper front teeth. With a quiet inhale through the nose and an audible exhale through the mouth, inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of 7, and then exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound for a count of 8. Repeat this cycle at least three more times.
- Belly Breathe
Take a deep breath and focus on expanding your belly, rather than your chest. Watch your abdomen fill up as you breathe in and flatten as you breathe out.
- Alternate Nose Breathing
Begin by pressing your thumb on your right nostril and breathe out gently through your left nostril. Next, breathe in through the left nostril gently, and press the left nostril closed with a different finger. Remove your thumb from the right nostril and breathe out through the right nostril. Next, breathe through the right nostril, close the nostril, and then exhale from the left. Continue with this pattern alternating between nostrils.
- Rest & Digest
The presence of healthy bacteria and “calm digestion” in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. A few daily essentials include:
- Take 1 minute for deep breathing prior to eating
- Stimulate salivation in your mouth prior to eating (relax while imagining a juicy lemon or your food)
- Chew your food really well (fully liquify it)
- Don’t eat “on the go”—be mindful of how you chew and how you eat
- Take digestive enzymes and HCL (hydrochloric acid) with meals to stimulate digestion
- Take a quality probiotic and short chain fatty acids
- Pray & Meditate
Prayer and meditation slows and deepens breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve and protects the heart. Specifically, it enhances cardiovascular rhythms such as diastolic blood pressure and HRV, as well as reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity. Start with a 5-minute guided meditation using an app like InsightTimer to begin honing in your practice.
- Try Frequency Specific Microcurrent Therapy
A treatment for activating the vagus nerve using brain electrodes and a microcurrent machine you plug up to your head. Microcurrent therapy has been around since the 1930’s and small energies (micro currents) send signals to your brain to modulate the immune response, Improve lymph drainage, reduce inflammation and pain in tissues and enhance mitochondrial function. The therapy is painless, non-invasive and only takes about 5 to 10 minutes, administered at a low frequency consistently (3 to 4 times per week) for several weeks if not months. Each patient is different. Microcurrent is not available in every city, but you can search for a practitioner or order your own machine as a long-term investment. Check out the IASIS website. You can also look for a local craniosacral therapist or osteopathic physician—another helpful vagus nerve modality.
- EFT (Tapping)
“Emotional Freedom Technique” (also known as “tapping”) is a body-tapping practice wherein you use your hand to tap on certain, specific points on your face and body related to various health conditions to release tension in those areas. EFT works by physically rewiring and altering the “fight or flight” response. One case study in subjects who had a history of trauma found that, before tapping, the subjects exhibited chaotic brainwaves. After tapping, their brains revealed normal brain-waves when recalling about the painful memory. Another study found EFT was able to decreaseright frontal cortex hyper-arousal and promote more calm after the tapping treatment following traumatic car accidents. You can find tons of videos on YouTube guiding you in the techniques, like this one.
- Brain Tap
If you like gadgets, Brain Tap is one you don’t want to miss. Brain Tap
is a guided brain reset technology integrating Binaural Beats, guided visualization, music and tones all in one to rewire brain waves. There is both an app and headset to help produce a state of calm and concentration in the brain. Of all the technologies I’ve tried to date for “brain resetting”, Brain Tap is by far my favorite for helping retrain and activate the vagus nerve in as little as 10 minutes per day.
When given the right tools your body (and vagus nerve) innately want to heal themselves.