I have recently been learning about the function of the vagus nerve. It's the biggest pair of nerves in our body (one on each side), and its impact is far reaching and profound. From improving breathing and digestive functions, regulating heart activity and liver function to impacting on your response to adversity and danger, the vagus significantly impacts your life moment to moment.
Research shows that how effectively the vagus nerves are working has a big impact on mental health. When it functions well, we are more able to relax and rest, when it does not, it is easier for our bodymind to get out of sync and to be dysregulated, resulting in tension, anxiety and low mood.
While polyvagal theory is not the easiest to explain simply, what you can do to help your vagus nerve is thankfully pretty straightforward. To help it have optimal tone, here are a range of activities you could do regularly:
1. Belly breathing. Breathing through your nose, and making sure it is your tummy and not your chest that most moves as you breathe, take slow, long breaths. Do this for 5-10 minutes, ideally a few times a day.
2. Humming and Gargling. The vagus nerves pass through the throat, they are helped by resonant, low pitched humming. You might even use a sound like ooommmm to get optimal vibration for best effect. If you prefer to gargle, you need to do it so vigourously that your eyes begin to water.
3. Calmly being Cold. Learn to breathe calmly through a cold shower. If you turn your shower onto cold suddenly, your breathing will change, it's an unwelcome shock. Doing this deliberately, and learning to breathe deeply regardless is a great way of toning the vagus. If you want a gentle start maybe try splashing your face with plenty of cold water and build up to a cold blast in the shower.
4. Getting good sleep. A few good tips are to eliminate blue light from electronic devices towards bedtime, and not to have electronic devices in your room while you sleep. You can also avoid eating or drinking in the hour before bedtime, and making sure that your sleep area is calm and uncluttered. Good sleep helps autonomic regulation and improves heart rate variability.
5. Laugh vigourously. It helps your ability to control your breathing and exercises your diaphragm. This is great exercise for your vagus, and more importantly its enjoyable and social.
There are plenty of different ways to tone the vagus, others include yoga, pilates, meditation and mindfulness. To learn more, I recommend the book Activate Your Vagus Nerve by Dr Navaz Habib. It's a brief book explaining what the nerve does, and how to stimulate it. I particularly liked the practical sections, they explain why things work and that helped me buy into trying them.