What’s the deal with the vagus nerve, and how do I tone mine?

vagus nerve chalkboard brain
Photo credit: Creative-Touch/Getty Images

You know that feeling when you go to a job interview and you feel a little nauseous? Or you are about to go on a first date and your stomach is gurgling in anticipation? The connection between your brain and your gut is real, and we have one of our longest nerves to thank for that: the vagus nerve.

If you’re new to learning about the vagus nerve, you’re in for a treat. We spoke to Victoria Albina, life coach, breathwork facilitator and holistic nurse practitioner, about the vagus nerve, what it is, what function it serves, and how to best ensure ours is in tip-top shape.

What is the vagus nerve, exactly?

“The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and runs in two directions. One branch goes up and connects with the nerves of your face (eyes, ears), neck and throat. The other branch travels downwards, from your brain through the middle of your body, directing the function of everything in its path — swallowing, heartbeat, lung function, diaphragm, digestion, reproductive organs and elimination,” Albina shared.

The vagus nerve is our longest cranial nerve and one of the most important in our parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, so it plays a pretty significant role in our physical, emotional and mental health.

In addition to playing a vital role in many of our bodily functions, studies of the vagus nerve also show that the gut-brain connection is biologically rooted. “When we talk about the gut-brain axis, we’re talking about the bidirectional superhighway of neurotransmitters and other chemicals that race all day from your digestive system to your brain and back, under the direction of your vagus nerve,” Albina explains. In other words, the way we feel and what we are thinking about can directly impact our gut — hence feeling sick to your stomach after you made a big mistake. But it’s not just your mind that can affect your digestion. Interestingly, the vagus nerve works in both directions, meaning that the health of our gut can also directly impact our mental and emotional state. That’s why your doctor may advise you to lay off refined sugars or inflammatory foods if you are working through anxiety or depression, for example. Maintaining a strong and healthy gut microbiome plays an essential role in so many aspects of our health, including our mental and emotional health.

MORE: Think you have gut problems? Wait until you hear about your oral microbiome

Vagus nerve function

If our vagus nerve plays such an important role in our health, how do we know if it’s functioning sub-optimally? According to Albina, signs of a vagus nerve firing incorrectly may include “anxiety, panic attacks, anger or irritability, ADHD/low focus, insomnia, metabolic issues, chronic headache, low immune system focus, heart disease and elevated blood pressure,” as well as digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), and mental health concerns, such as anxiety, PTSD and depression. Gastroparesis is also associated with the vagus nerve.

Tips for toning

The good news is that, unlike some other internal processes, we can actually work on strengthening and toning our vagus nerve for optimal health. While there is an actual device (kind of like a pacemaker) that can be implanted in the body to stimulate the vagus nerve in severe cases, we can also tone it ourselves using simple exercises. These exercises can help to slow down your heart rate, release stress and put your body into a calmer state overall, in addition to supporting the more acute conditions mentioned previously. Albina’s favorite ways to tone include “gargling, singing (loudly, please!), cold showers and gagging yourself (yup — not enjoyable, but it really helps). Yoga, prayer and chanting are other great ways. And the Breathwork Meditation I teach can be very helpful for supporting both branches of the vagus nerve.” You can even buy essential oil blends, like the Vagus Nerve Oil from OSEA, that help stimulate the nerve.

These tools are particularly helpful because the vagus nerve plays a central role in our autonomic nervous system, particularly by facilitating our parasympathetic nervous system — the one that is sometimes called “rest and digest.” By stimulating our vagus nerve, even if we aren’t seeing signs that our vagal tone is out of whack, we are helping to stimulate this rest and digest system, giving our body a respite from “fight or flight,” which we find ourselves in more and more often in this ever-so-busy world. If you find yourself in a state of panic or stress, you may want to try stimulating the vagus nerve to induce calm and a slower heart rate.

MORE: How to make coffee even better for your brain & body

So go ahead, sing in the shower! It may be just what your body needs to optimize its vagal tone and, in turn, your overall health.