Everyone gets stressed, but some people can relax quickly. That ability to pivot from the “fight-or-flight” response to the “rest-and- digest” response, it turns out, is incredibly important for health. It’s called “vagal tone,” because it’s the vagus nerve—which runs from the brain through the lungs and the gut—that controls these responses. A high vagal tone is linked with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and depression.
Cutting-edge medical procedures, called vagus nerve stimulation, are showing promise for treating a wide range of tough-to-treat medical conditions. But you can improve your vagal tone today. To learn how, Bottom Line spoke with Meredith Hutter Chamorro, a certified yoga instructor who uses several approaches to improve the vagal tone in her clients. Try these vagus nerve tune-ups every day…
Deep diaphragmatic breathing: Breathing through your nose, inhale deeply into your belly and exhale slowly. Control your exhale so that it lasts longer than the inhale—like letting air out of a tire. The movement of the diaphragm during this breath cycle massages the vagus nerve—and during the exhale, the diaphragm releases around the vagus nerve, improving its functioning.
Massage: Grab a squishy exercise ball—I use one that is about nine inches in diameter—and lay with your tummy on it. Don’t use a firm ball—it should feel comfortable, not painful. Then do some diaphragmatic breathing to massage the abdomen—and the vagus nerve. As you get comfortable with the position, slowly roll from side to side on the ball. This helps release tension in your core muscles, making it easier to take deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
Cold water. When your body adjusts to cold, your fight-or-flight response declines and your rest-and-digest system kicks in. You can stimulate your vagus nerve simply by splashing cold water on your face.
Singing and humming. These vocal activities produce vibration in the neck, which stimulates the vagus nerve in a beneficial way.
Gargling: Grab a glass of water each morning and gargle to contract the muscles in the back of the throat, which stimulates your vagus nerve and the digestive tract. For the most benefit, gargle continuously until your eyes start to tear up—another vagus function.
Yoga: Add “toning your vagus nerve” to your long list of reasons to do yoga. The practice incorporates diaphragmatic breathing, chanting and stress reduction, all of which stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Meditation. All types of meditation are good for the vagus nerve. My favorite— compassionate or “Loving-Kindness” meditation. Rather than letting your mind wander, you direct your good thoughts to other people. As positive emotions increase, so does your vagal tone.
Laughter: Laughing reduces the muscle tension in the face, neck and diaphragm that can cause bottlenecks in vagus signals. It also requires diaphragmatic movements and has been shown to improve vagal tone. Just more proof that laugher really is the best medicine.