Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Key to Better Health, Sleep and Stress Relief.

Christine Steele Christine Steele
8 minute read

Most people may have never heard of the vagus nerve, or what vagus nerve stimulation is, but it’s essential to fighting stress. Vagus nerve stimulation can be used to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and get your body out of fight-or-flight stress mode. This is a key to help you manage stress and sleep better.

Americans are some of the most stressed people in the world, with more than half of all Americans reporting being stressed during the day.  And the problem is getting worse, not better, according to a March 2022 survey.     

Stress comes from different sources, with money and work being the top two stressors, along with other societal issues outside of our control, according to a new poll by the American Psychological Association.   

Since the problem of stress isn’t going away anytime soon, one of the ways to get a handle on it is to learn how to use your own body and vagus nerve stimulation to help manage it. 


What is the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves that control certain functions of your body. The nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system and controls digestion, heart rate, and the immune system. 

It is the longest cranial nerve and is actually a pair of nerves that start in your brainstem and run down through the left and right side of your body, passing through your neck, throat, chest, and connecting with your heart and lungs, before ending in your large intestine.

The term “Vagus” comes from the Latin word for “wandering” so the vagus nerve is aptly named because it wanders through your body.  

It is also known as cranial nerve X because it is the 10th cranial nerve.

What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?

One of the key functions of the vagus nerve is to help your body switch between the flight-or-fight response and a more relaxed state, which is your parasympathetic mode. It controls some of your body’s involuntary sensory and motor functions, like your heart rate, speech, and mood. But your vagus nerve can lose the ability to switch back to the calming mode and stay stuck in “on” or panic mode.  

That vagal dysfunction can be caused by an infection, inflammation, or an extended period of physical or mental stress.  A pilot study showed that the effects of long COVID-19 may have a negative impact on vagus nerve function and lead to dizziness, low blood pressure, and voice problems.  

When your vagus nerve stops working properly, you may experience brain fog, digestive problems, fatigue, muscle aches, and headaches, sleep poorly, or feel depressed or anxious. 

A decrease in your vagus nerve function can also put you at risk for other health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes.


What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation? 

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) refers to any technique that stimulates the vagus nerve, be it manual or electrical stimulation.

It has been approved by the FDA to treat a number of conditions, including epilepsy, long-term or recurrent drug-resistant depression and as a rehabilitation aid for stroke victims who have experienced a loss of hand and arm function due to blocked blood flow.

Other studies have shown that it can also help treat bipolar disorder, anxiety, Cluster headaches as well as rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease along with Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even Alzheimer’s Disease.

In FDA-approved treatments, Vagus nerve stimulation is done by implanting a small device in your chest, with a wire that runs under your skin and connects the device to the vagus nerve.

The device works like a “pacemaker for the brain,” sending mild, painless electrical signals through your vagus nerve to your brain, which helps calm the irregular electrical activity going on in your brain. 

However, you don’t need to have a device implanted to stimulate your vagus nerve. 


Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Stimulating your vagus nerve can have a host of wide-ranging physical and mental health benefits. 

It can help regulate everything from your emotions to digestion to sleep, including positive benefits for some serious issues such as

  • Depression
  • Inflammation
  • Migraines
  • Cluster headaches
  • Epileptic seizures
  • High blood pressure 
  • PTSD Symptoms

 Overall, a healthy, toned vagus nerve makes you more resilient and better equipped to deal with trauma and stress. With all the growing stressors in the world, we need this in-house superpower more than ever!

How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve at Home

There are many ways to stimulate your vagus nerve naturally at home, with no devices, just mindfulness and your own body.   

Deep breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing or breathing from your belly stimulates the vagus nerve and helps your body shift its focus away from stress and pain. 

When our bodies anticipate stress, we tend to hold our breath, which activates the fight or flight response. That increases the sensation of pain, stiffness, anxiety, and fear. 

Deep, belly breathing, inhaling through your nose, and exhaling through your mouth, helps lower your heart rate and releases you from fight or flight mode. 

With one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, breathe in and feel your abdomen expand and your rib cage widen. When you exhale, go longer than you inhaled, as that is what triggers the relaxation response. Aim for six breaths a minute.  

Gargling/Laughing: Our vagus nerve is connected to our vocal cords. So, when we gargle loudly with water, or laugh heartily, that activates our vocal cords, which in turn, stimulates our vagus nerve. 

Music/singing/humming/chanting: Besides bringing us joy, music can help stimulate our vagus nerve when we sing, hum, chant “Om” or even just listen to calm soothing music. The sound and vibrations stimulate your vagus nerve and help relax you. 

Cold water immersion: A cold shower can be invigorating, but it offers health benefits, too. Research shows that cold-water immersion slows your heart rate and helps your body destress. You don’t even have to immerse your whole body in cold water to reap the benefits. Try plunging your face into a bowl of cold water, or use an ice pack on your face or neck. This stimulates your vagus nerve and activates the immune system.

Meditation/Positive Self-Affirmations: A regular practice of meditation can help cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward ourselves and others, and lead to more social connections and improved vagal tone, according to one study.

Foot massages: Not only does it feel good, but a foot massage or reflexology session can increase vagal tone and decrease blood pressure. The pressure from the massage can calm an overstimulated vagus nerve. To give yourself a foot massage, rotate your ankles and rub the soles of your feet in short upward strokes and gently stretch your toes back and forth.

At-home exercises: Getting out and moving your body is good for your health. Yoga has many health benefits, including helping to improve digestion by stimulating the vagus nerve. There are several other, simple exercises you can do at home to help stimulate your vagus nerve. Here are three, from Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, by Stanley Rosenberg. 


The Basic Exercise

  1. Lie on your back and lace your fingers behind your head
  2. Using just your eyes, look to the right without turning your head
  3. Remain in this position until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
  4. Return your eyes to neutral and looking straight above
  5. Repeat on the other side


The Half Salamander

  1. Using just your eyes, look to the right without turning your head
  2. Tilt your head towards your right shoulder
  3. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds
  4. Return your eyes to look straight ahead
  5. Using just your eyes, look to the left without turning your head
  6. Tilt your head towards your left shoulder
  7. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds
  8. Return your eyes to neutral and looking straight ahead
  9. You can also vary by looking in the opposite direction of your head tilt, so your head tilts left and your eyes look right and vice versa. 

The Full Salamander

  1. Get down on all fours with your head facing down
  2. Using just your eyes, look to the left without turning your head
  3. Tilt your head to the left
  4. Let your left spine twist with your head tilt 
  5. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds
  6. Bring your head and spine back to the center and straighten out
  7. Repeat the motions on your right side

Now that we know about vagus nerve stimulation when stressful situations arise and we end up stuck in fight-or-flight mode, we don’t have to suffer from physical effects and poor sleep. We have a powerful antidote at our disposal. Be mindful of your vagus nerve and send a message to your brain to relax and unwind!


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