The Vagus Nerve: our favourite cranial nerve

By Megan Alexander

The Vagus Nerve: our favourite cranial nerve

There’s no quick fix that makes mental health issues and other life problems disappear. This usually requires a lot of hard work, acceptance + support to tackle. But there is a nerve that exists within the body that’s been on everyone’s radar because of how phenomenal its function is, that being, to make us feel safe.

The Vagus Nerve is the longest and most intricate cranial nerve: branching from the brain through the face, throat, chest and belly, making the connection between your brain to some of your major organs. It controls your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for heart rate, breathing patterns and digestion. When in this parasympathetic state, your body begins to function better, as it begins to feel safe, which makes YOU feel better. Since these systems are directly related to overall health, it makes the Vagus Nerve crucial to understanding how to maintain and promote well-being.

Vagal tone refers to how active the Vagus Nerve is and how optimally it's functioning. It's measured by looking at your breath rate in comparison to your heart rate. Scoring low on Vagal tone can mean inflammatory issues, higher reported rates of anxiety + depression and chronic fatigue. When Vagal tone is high, however, many functions + systems of the body work impressively well, and decreased anxiety and a better mood are often a result. For example, one of the roles of the Vagus Nerve is to read the gut microbiome and find ways to deal with inflammation. Many of the good feels that come with high Vagal tone are thanks to a happy gut.

Thankfully, your level of Vagal tone isn’t set in stone, it’s something that changes and can strengthen over time. The best results are seen with consistent practice, so we recommend including some of these techniques daily:

1. Humming/Singing

The VN is connected to the muscles in the back of your throat and your vocal cords. Singing and humming stimulate the nerve and strengthen its tone. This can be casual and non-specific, like gargling water, singing in the shower, or a more purposeful practice. Choose a mantra or chant that resonates with you, open your mouth wide, and belt it out every day.

2. Breathwork

Working towards extending the exhale of your breath cycle acts as a calming device that also activates and tones the VN. After establishing a smooth, calm + slow breath, take a breath in until you're full and hold at the top of your breath for four counts. Exhale for a count longer than your inhale and hold for six counts at the end of your exhale, when your lungs are empty. Keep your face relaxed as you practice. 

3. Cold Water Therapy 

Not only does exposure to some icy cold water activate the Vagus nerve, it also teaches the fight or flight response to chill out. This practice can be a challenge to get started with so remember to start small. Incorporate 30 seconds of cold at the end of your shower or splash your face with cold water when you wake up. Over time you’ll start to work up a resistance to the cold which lets you stay in it for longer periods of time. Ice bath anyone?