Stimulating vagus nerve helps increase vagal tone; healthier, happier life…
To some degree, we are genetically predisposed to varying levels of vagal tone, but this still doesn’t mean that we can’t change it. Although direct stimulating of vagus nerve may require an electrical device, howbeit we can indirectly increase vagal tone by eliciting a parasympathetic response. Here are some ways to increase vagal tone
1 :: Rhythmic Diaphragmatic Sine wave Breathing. It is no surprise that Sine wave Diaphragmatic Breathing activates parasympathetic nervous system. It makes sense- sympathetic activation leads to fast breathing and parasympathetic response leads to deep relaxed breathing.
Every time you inhale your heart speeds up by activating sympathetic response and suppressing vagus nerve. By holding breath after inhalation you attenuate this response. Every time you exhale your heart rate slows down due to vagal response. Holding the breath after exhalation facilitates vagal response.
To promote vagal activation you have to gradually lengthen your exhalation and the pause after exhalation in a comfortable manner.
Sine wave Diaphragmatic Breathing dilates bronchioles (tiny pathways leading to alveoli where exchange of gases takes place). Normally Vagus nerve causes constriction of the bronchioles, so by expanding it during diaphragmatic breathing, you actually trigger vagus nerve to bring bronchioles back to normal size.
Also, Sine wave Diaphragmatic Breathing increases sensitivity of baroreceptors- receptors present in the neurons of heart and neck, which upon activation lowers blood pressure by stimulating vagus nerve. The more sensitive they are, the more promptly they will reduce blood pressure.
2 :: Singing. Singing, a form of guided breathing can increase heart rate variability (HRV) – Measure of vagal tone.
As vagus nerve innervates vocal cords, any form of singing i.e. humming, hymn singing, mantra chanting and upbeat energetic breathing can mechanically stimulate it.
Singing has reported to increase the level of bonding hormone-oxytocin and helps in fostering social closeness.
Om chanting, according to a Study in International Journal of Yoga 2011, promotes limbic deactivation; it deactivates areas of brain controlling fear, anger, drives such as hunger, sex and dominance. Researchers found that Om chanting deactivates the same areas that became deactivated by electrical vagal stimulation for treatments of epilepsy and depression.
The soft humming of a song and even Bhramari Pranayama can have a similar effect. To practice Bhramari Pranayama you have to lengthen your exhalation to make mmmm… sound, which further amplifies the parasympathetic response.
3 :: Meditation. A Study published in Psychological Science, links having kind and compassionate attitude with enhanced vagal tone. Study participants embarked on “loving kindness” meditation for a six-week course. After the study period, the participants in the study group showed significant improvement in heart rate variability- a measure of vagal tone.
Another study found higher levels of gamma brain waves ad thicker cerebral cortices- area associated with higher brain functions, in meditators (biomed research international 2015).
Meditation has been seen to modulate astrocytes and glia cells (brain supporting cells), oxygen supply, blood volume, metabolism, inflammation and even neuroplasticity.
4 :: Breathing exerciser or spirometer. Breathing in and out through resistance offered by an external device may stimulate your vagus nerve better.
As these breathing devices also offer feedback, they may allow you to pace your breathing better.
5 :: Balancing your gut microbiome. According to a 2011 study published in British journal of nutrition, a small group of volunteers saw reduction in anxiety and depression after taking probiotics (containing lactobacillus helveticus and bifidobacteriumlongum) for a month.
In 2013, scientist at UCLA reported that consumption of yogurt twice daily is associated with changes in parts of brain that process emotions.
6 :: Cold emersions. Any kind of exercise causes intensity-dependent sympathetic stimulation and parasympathetic withdrawal followed by parasympathetic reactivation in the recovery period.
Prompt recovery of parasympathetic response allows faster recovery, which is facilitated by cold water immersion.
A greater parasympathetic activation is observed by exposing the whole body to cold rather than partial or local exposure. Also, whole body emersion has been seen to increase the level of dopamine- hormone related to sensation of well being and pleasure.
To begin with you can just dip your face in cold water and then gradually proceed to cold showers and cold emersions.
7 :: Massage helps stimulating Vagus nerve. Research has shown that massaging at carotid Sinus (located at neck) by digital pressure can stimulate vagus nerve. Carotid sinus massage can abort seizure activity(Journal of Clinical Neuroscience 2014)
Note: Carotid sinus massage should only be performed by a Doctor.
Foot massage can also increase vagal modulation and can be used as an adjunct to therapeutic regimen to decrease blood pressure in both healthy and hypertensive patients(Alternative therapies in Health and Medicine 2011)
The benefits of massage are attributed to stimulation of pressure receptors in the brain. These receptors can in turn stimulate the vagus nerve.
Massage has been found to lessen stress, depression, anxiety, migraine, pain associated with fibromyalgia,improve immune functions, Regular massages can relieve symptoms of reflux in babies, lowers muscle tension. All these effects of massage are mediated by vagus nerve.
8 :: Yoga stimulates Vagus nerve. Yoga techniques increase PNS tone by stimulating vagal afferents directly. Studies have shown a positive correlation between practicing yoga postures and acute increase in thalamic GABA levels. Increased GABA levels are mainly mediated by the ability of yoga practices to increase vagal tone.
Studies have documented greater vagal stimulation with yoga practice as compared to other forms of exercise.
Yoga practices have been shown to reduce inappropriate activation of autonomic nervous system as seen in IBS patients. Clinical trials on IBS patients have found sympathetic over-activity as the main contributing factor. Yoga, by increasing PNS reactivity, proved to be a remedial therapy for IBS patients (evidence based Complementary and Alternative Therapy 2015).
Vagal stimulation by Savasana and Pranayama have been widely studied and reported. Simple rhythmic Diaphragmatic sine wave breathing technique has been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress by stimulating PNS activity.
Breathing through right nose has been shown to increase sympathetic activity, whereas left nose breathing led to PNS shift.
9 :: Prayer can stimulate Vagus nerve. Studies have shown that prayer in form of rosary recitation or recitation of yoga mantra enhances heart rate variability and baroreflex sensitivity by slowing down respiration to about 6-breaths/minute, therebystimulating vagus nerve (British Medical Journal 2001).
Regardless of religious traditions or context of beliefs, prayer shows drops in inflammatory cytokines, elevation in anti-inflammatory cytokines, increase in HRV, innate healing and increase in vagal tone.
10 :: Laughter. Extended form of laughter as seen in laughter yoga and laughter wellness provides longer exhalation and thereby stimulates vagus nerve.
Laughter initially stimulates catecholamine production, which in turn, increases heart rate and blood pressure. This phase is immediately followed by PNS activation, which generates a state of systemic relaxation.
Researchers have reported that laughter reduces neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones by stimulating vagus nerve.
The transient effect of laughter therapy has been effective in reducing anxiety and stress in breast cancer patients (evidence based complementary and alternative therapy 2015).
It has been found useful for insomnia, pain relief and improving immunity, pulmonary function and general health in elderly people.
11 :: Relaxation techniques. Effect of various relaxation techniques on increasing cardiac parasympathetic tone has already been documented by many studies.
The relaxation response can be achieved through number of techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, deep relaxation,benson relaxation, selection relaxation, autogenic trainingand guided imagery. These techniques are now recommended for treating depression, anxiety, stress, pain and distress.
Relaxation techniques have shown to reduce heart rate, increase heart rate variability, exercise tolerance and HDL cholesterol in patients with heart diseases and it has become an important ingredient in cardiac rehabilitation along with exercise and pshyo-education (European Journal of Cardiovascular prevention and rehabilitation 2005)
12 :: Fiddle with your upper lip. Another cool but goofy method that includes producing “blub blub” sound with lips (usually done by kids). This technique is only supported by anecdotal evidence from people working with horses or kids.
- It stimulates PNS fibers innervating lips.
- It triggers positive emotions associated with feeding and nursing.
- It stimulates salivation, which is mainly controlled by vagus nerve.
13 :: Have constructive emotions. Having constructive emotions can directly stimulate vagus nerve by lowering cardiovascular reactivity.
Any kind of positive feeling like love, gratitude, contentment, and tranquility can arouse vagus nerve.
Following methods can help to recondition habit patterns and promote positive emotions:
- Giving thanks for your blessings.
- Spending time in nature.
- Creative and affirmative visualizations.
- Laughter therapy.
- Light therapy.
- Meditation and diaphragmatic sine wave breathing.
14 :: Fasting. Role of vagus nerve is to regulate energy balance and energy content in the body. During fasting, signals related to hunger, decline of blood sugar or reduction of mechanical/chemical signals from alimentary canal are transmitted to brain via hepatic (liver) vagus afferents.
Vagus nerve upon activation regulates energy conservation and metabolism.
Intermittent fasting or reducing calories can be an option for improving vagal tone, as it has shown to increase heart rate variability, in animal studies.
15 :: Laying on the right side. Laying on right ride leads to highest vagal stimulation. Along with this, both right and left prone positions can also modulate vagal tone, especially for those who have low vagal modulation in supine. Laying supine leads to lowest vagus nerve stimulation(Circulation Journal 2008).
16 :: Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a Traditional Chinese callisthenic exercise, which involves aerobic training and diaphragmatic breathing.
Studies have shown that Tai chai enhances heart rate variability and can tilt the sympathovagal balance towards reduced sympathetic modulation.
17 :: Mild Physical Exercises. Mild physical exercise can stimulate vagus nerve, as it has shown to increase gastric motility and enhances the ability of stomach to process food(the tohoku journal of experimental medicine2010)
Exercise releases large amounts of neurotransmitter GABA(CNS inhibitor) in the brain, which instantly relaxes it by inhibiting stress and mood swings.
High intensity interval training is more effective than repetitive sprints in improving post exercise vagus nerve function (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2008)
Aerobic exercise can improve post exercise vagal reactivation (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2015). Regular aerobic training of moderate volume and intensity for a minimum of 3 months is necessary to ensure long term effects.
18 :: Qigong helps increase vagal tone. Qigong is an ancient Chinese health care system that incorporates various movements, postures, breathing techniques and focused attention.
Researchers have speculated that meditation, breath work (diaphragmatic sine wave breathing) and structured body movements could stimulate PNS (Parasympathetic nervous system) and endocrine system.
Numerous studies have shown positive effect of qigong on mood regulation, enhancing cardiac output, oxygen consumption, diabetes, fibromyalgia, cancer and movement disorders (BMC alternative and complementary medicine 2014).
19 :: Gargling. Vagus nerve innervates the muscles in the back of your throat that help you to gargle. Gargling with water contract these muscles and stimulates vagus nerve, which helps to bring blood flow to the gut and maintains its motility.
It is advisable to gargle several times a day for several weeks to ensure the desired effect.
20 :: Stimulate gag reflex. You can stimulate gag reflex by using sterile tongue depressors. You should not go too far into your throat as it may cause injury.
Vagus nerve gets stimulated if your eyes begin to tear up while stimulating gag reflex.
Again, it may take several weeks to strengthen vagal tone and gut-brain axis by this method.
21 :: Acupuncture/acupressure helps increase vagal tone. Studies have shown that auricular (ear) acupuncture plays a role in vagal stimulation of cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous and gastrointestinal system. It is also proposed to prevent certain neurodegenerative diseases by vagal regulation.
22 :: Oxytocin can stimulate Vagus nerve. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide produced by hypothalamus that regulates feeding. It has been proved that peripheral administration of Oxytocin suppresses food intake and weight gain by activating vagal nerve fibers and thereby ameliorates obesity.
23 :: Zinc can help stimulate Vagus nerve. Zinc is essential for many physiological functions, such as growth, perception of taste, immune function, and reproduction.
Oral administration of zinc may regulate food intake via stimulating vagal afferents.
24 :: Healthy Serotonin levels can help stimulate Vagus nerve. Serotonin intake can increase vagal activity, mediated by serotonin receptors. You can take dietary supplements to increase your serotonin levels.
Serotonin the natural “feel good hormone” helps to regulate mood, appetite, temperature, memory, endocrine functions, sleep, learning, heart and muscle function.
25 :: Hormone cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK, a digestive hormone that suppresses appetite naturally, delivers satiety signal to brain via vagus nerve.
Foods rich in soluble fiber(beans,guar gum), proteins(meat, eggs,fish,soy) and fats(olive oil) are potent CCK inducers.
26 :: Gut hormone glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1). GLP-1, hormone mainly secreted by gut, promotes satiety and slows gastric emptying by stimulating vagus nerve.
Supplementation of diet with probiotics, high fiber diet, resistant starch, dairy products, maize starch, nutritional supplement like L-arginine and glutamine can enhance GLP-1 secretion and can thereby stimulate vagus nerve.
27 :: Pancreatic polypeptide(PPY). PPY is a satiety hormone secreted by pancreas. PPY directly activates vagal nerve.
PPY regulates appetite by reducing food intake and slowing gastric emptying. It also helps to ameliorate anxiety, promotes weight management, gastric motility and increases energy expenditure.
Having nuts, seeds, high quality protein meal, intermittent fasting and regular exercise can increase pancreatic polypeptide secretion, which can directly activate vagus nerve.
28 :: Coughing or contracting stomach muscles. Both coughing and contracting stomach muscles as if to bear down to have bowel movement are a type of valsalva maneuver- forceful exhalation against a closed airway
Valsalva maneuver can greatly increase pressure in the chest cavity, which can directly stimulate parasympathetic nervous system.
29 :: Eating fish can increase vagal tone. Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in fish and supplemented fish oil can increase HRV (Heart Rate Viability) by modulating vagal tone.
American heart association recommends 1g/d of EPA and DHA for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
30 :: Biofeedback can stimulate vagus nerve. Heart rate variability-biofeedback is a new type of biofeedback technique. In this technique, firstly the resonant frequency (generally 6 breaths/minute but can vary from person to person) of an individual is established.
Resonant frequency is the respiratory rate at which the heart rate variability is the greatest, which is measured by biofeedback instruments. Then the subject is asked to breathe fully at the resonant frequency for a desired amount of time.
Breathing at resonant frequency increases vagal activity by increasing heart rate variability and by increasing baroreflex sensitivity.
31 :: Hypnosis can stimulate Vagus nerve. Hypnosis or hypnotherapy is a therapeutic technique in which a practitioner induces a trance state that resembles sleep and is characterized by state of heightened responsiveness to suggestion.
Hypnosis has been used to block pain, treat anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and hot flashes during menopause.
The effects of hypnosis are mainly mediated through vagus nerve.
Vagus nerve stimulation has immense Body-Breath-Mind benefits. Traditional healing practices always include vagus nerve stimulation as part of complete wellness rehabilitation. The Western meditation, slowly but surely is realizing the wisdom of these ancient therapies…