12 Vagus Nerve Exercises To Improve Health

High vagus nerve tone is essential for physical and mental health. It’s associated with reduced pain, anxiety and fatigue and improved digestion, energy, sleep and mood. Improving vagal tone has been shown to ease symptoms for a range of chronic illnesses. Below I detail what the vagus nerve is, what it controls, what can cause it to dysfunction and two methods for testing the vagus nerve. Finally, I describe how to heal the vagus nerve naturally with 12 simple vagus nerve exercises that can improve health and help manage chronic illness symptoms.

Disclaimer: This vagus nerve exercise post is intended for informational purposes only. I’m not a qualified practitioner and I’m not encouraging anyone else to these exercises. Please consult a qualified practitioner before making any changes to your current diet or treatment plan. This post contains affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to your I will earn commission if you click on a link and make a purchase. See my full disclaimer here

 

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the brain through our eyes, ears, vocal cords and down to all our major organs, including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and gut.


What does the vagus nerve do? – Role and function

It affects numerous functions of the body. The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling our:-

  • Mood,
  • Energy levels,
  • Heart rate,
  • Blood pressure,
  • Blood sugar levels,
  • Breathing and
  • Digestion.

It’s a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest system, which we need to be active for our bodies to heal and regenerate, digest food and absorb nutrients (1).

 

What can damage the vagus nerve

Disorders of the vagus nerve can be caused by:-

  • Poor diet, high in processed foods and refined sugar
  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Infections

 Related Post: 20 Healthy Food & Drink Swaps

 

signs and symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction

Underactive vagus nerve activity causes the sympathetic nervous system, our stress response, to be overactive. Low vagal tone symptoms include:-

  • Chronic fatigue,
  • Increased pain and inflammation, 
  • Digestive/gastrointestinal problems, like Crohn’s, irritable bowel syndrome and gastroparesis,
  • Diarrhoea and constipation,
  • Impaired mood, 
  • Anxiety & depression,
  • Impaired concentration and memory,
  • Abnormal heart rates and blood pressure,
  • Headaches and migraines,
  • Fibromyalgia,
  • Diabetes,
  • Weight gain,
  • Impaired sleep and insomnia,
  • Autoimmune conditions, 
  • Cardiovascular problems and more (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)


the healing power of the vagus nerve – benefits of increasing vagal tone

In contrast, stimulating the vagus nerve calms our whole body and puts us in the parasympathetic rest and relaxation state. Research shows activating the vagus nerve to improve vagal tone:-

  • Reduces pain,
  • Decreases inflammation,
  • Improves sleep,
  • Reduces fatigue and increases energy,
  • Reduces heart rates,
  • Controls blood pressure,
  • Controls blood glucose levels,
  • Increases relaxation,
  • Eases anxiety, depression and stress,
  • Boosts our immune system, 
  • Improves digestion (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

 

how to test vagus nerve function

There are 2 ways to measure vagus nerve activity.

 

vagal tone test 1 – measure heart rate variability

Heart rate variability HRV (variation in time between each heart beat) is a measure of vagus nerve activity and can be used to measure the effectiveness of vagus nerve stimulation exercises – the higher it is the better. A vagal tone measuring device you can use to complete this is a smartwatch (UK Link/US Link).

 

vagus nerve examination 2 – sesame seed transit time

Devices needed to measure heart rate variability can be expensive. So a cheap alternative method of testing vagus nerve function Dr Navaz Habib recommends is the sesame seed transit time. To perform, consume whole sesame seeds (UK Link/US Link) in glass of water without chewing and measure how long they take to appear in your stool. It should take 12-20 hours. Anything less or more than this indicates poor vagal tone (9).

 

Vagus nerve healing – how to activate the vagus nerve

Healing the vagus nerve and improving vagal tone doesn’t need to cost money or require lots of time and effort. Stimulating the vagus nerve naturally can be done quickly and easily at home with the below 12 vagal tone exercises. There’s a range of tools that are free or affordable, some of which can be done laying in bed, so there’s something suitable for everyone.

Related Post: 3 Tips For Sticking To New Habits & Routines

 

12 vagus nerve exercises to increase vagal tone

1). Gargling

Gargling activates the muscles at the back of the throat, which the vagus nerve runs through. Gargling to the point where you tear up is optimal for activating the vagus nerve. Dr Navaz Habib recommends doing this with warm salt water to kill bacteria at the back of the throat (9).

 

2). Humming/Singing 

Humming, singing or chanting activates the vocal cords, which the vagus nerve passes through. The stimulation of the vagus nerve has been shown to increase heart rate variability (10).

 

3). Slow deep diaphragmatic breathing

As we breathe, inhaling stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, our stress response, while exhaling increases parasympathetic nervous system activation, our relaxation response (11).

To activate the vagus nerve and increase the amount of oxygen taken in and transported around the body, breathing should be (12):-

  • Slow, ideally you should take 6 breaths per minute,
  • Effortless,
  • Done using the diaphragmatic (belly breathing),
  • In and out through the nose,
  • With the exhale lasting twice as long as the inhale. 

Breathing exercises are one of the best vagus nerve exercises for digestion. Performing slow, deep breathing for 1 minute before eating activates the parasympathetic nervous system, to increase digestive enzyme production, winch optimises digestion and the amount of nutrients we absorb from the foods we consume (28).

Related Posts: 6 Tips To Maximise The Benefit Of Breathing Exercises – Breath Retraining & 10 Tips To Improve Digestion

 

4). Yoga 

Yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and increases parasympathetic nervous system activation, which has been shown to have the following benefits:-

  • Lowers heart rates,
  • Reduces pain,
  • Relieves depression and anxiety,
  • Improves sleep quality (13, 14).

The below video has 4 yoga poses for vagus nerve stimulation that can even be done laying in bed.

 

Related Post: 5 Step Nighttime Routine To Sleep Better (That Doesn’t Cost Anything!)

 

5). Cold exposure

As our body adjusts to cold temperatures, the vagus nerve is activated to reduce our sympathetic stress response and increase our parasympathetic rest and relaxation state. In addition to strengthening the vagus nerve, it has the additional benefits of:-

  • Increasing lymph flow, which removes toxins, bacteria, viruses and other waste products from the body,
  • Causing the heart to pump more efficiently to increase blood flow and deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the whole body,
  • Increasing energy levels,
  • Speeding up our metabolism, which boosts the immune system and the production of white blood cells to help fight infection and illness (15).

 

Exposure to the cold can be achieved with:-

  • Cold showers,
  • Drinking cold water,
  • Icing the vagus nerve by placing an ice pack on your forehead or side of the neck,
  • Splash face with cold water,
  • Sucking on an ice cube

 Related Post: 10 Healthy Habits To Improve Your Health For Free

 

6). Prayer/Meditation 

By activating the vagus nerve, prayer and meditation (even for just 2-3 minutes) has been shown to ease anxiety and stress and increase relaxation (16, 17).

 Related Post: Rest Well – 7 Types Of Rest We Need

 

7). Acupressure & Acupuncture

Acupressure and acupuncture stimulate the vagus nerve and increase heart rate variability, while also reducing inflammation, improving digestion and easing nausea and vomiting (18, 19, 28). There are 3 pressure points that stimulate the vagus nerve specifically:-

  • Concha cymba – in the cavity above the ear canal.
  • Stomach 36 – 3 finger widths down from your wrist in between the 2 large tendons.

  • Nei Guan P6 – 4 finger widths down from the bottom of your kneecap on the outside of your shin.

vagus nerve acupressure and acupuncture points

You can stimulate these vagus nerve acupressure points yourself quickly and easily at home by applying firm but not painful downward pressure on them with your thumb or finger in a circular motion for 1-2 minutes on each one. The below video demonstrates how to locate these 3 points and perform acupressure.

 

 Related Post: Vagus Nerve Acupressure Points

 

8). Massage

Massage has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and increase parasympathetic nervous system activation (20). It has been shown to provide the following benefits for range of conditions, including Fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and autoimmune conditions:-

  • Reduced pain and muscle tension,
  • Improved function,
  • Reduced anxiety, depression and stress,
  • Lowered blood pressure,
  • Improved sleep,
  • Boosts the immune system (20).

For a vagus nerve massage specifically, massage the feet and carotid sinus’, on the side of the neck (21).

Related Post: How To Open Drainage Pathways (& Why It’s Important For Health & Chronic Illness Management)

 

9). Tai Chi

Tai chi has been shown to increase vagus nerve activity and lower heart rates, blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels (22, 23).

Related Post: 6 Daily Habits To Improve Mental Health

 

10). Omega 3 fats

Omega 3 anti-inflammatory fats can be found in:-

  • Oily fish (salmon, mackerel),
  • Walnuts, consume activated ones for added benefits (UK Link/US Link).

They stimulate the vagus nerve and have been shown to reduce resting heart rates and increase heart rate variability (24).

 

11). High fibre diet

Eating foods high in fibre – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and legumes – is essential for regular bowel movements. The removal of digested food and toxins in stools prevents bad bacteria and other pathogens in the gut from thriving and impairing vagus nerve activation. Fibre has the additional benefit of feeding the good bacteria in the gut, which reduces inflammation and increases vagus nerve activation (25).

 

12). Probiotics

The vagus nerve innervates the gut. Probiotics and fermented foods increase the good bacteria in the gut, which activates the vagus nerve (26). 90% of the nerves from the gut connect to the brain via the vagus nerve. The increase in good bacteria in the gut has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress and depression (27).

Fermented foods include:-

  • Water kefir
  • Coconut milk kefir

 

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15 thoughts on “12 Vagus Nerve Exercises To Improve Health”

  • This is such a good post and important topic! The vagus nerve really needs a lot more attention in Western medicine. It’s so important for so many bodily functions. It’s where I massage too when I get arrhythmia, and if it doesn’t work, then I take medications.

    • Thank you Sheryl, I appreciate that! It really does need to be spoken about more, it was one of the last things I came across when I was researching management tips yet it’s been one of the most beneficial things. I’m so glad it helps control your arrhythmia.

  • Such an interesting topic, and one that is becoming more and more the topic of conversation I feel. I have been trying to do cold water exposure lately, but I am not sure if it aggravates my mast cells a little too much – need to ask my doctor about it!

    • Thank you Claire. Yes it’s definitely getting spoken about more which is really important because it’s so vital. Yes, I used to struggle with cold exposure due to dysautonomia but I can tolerate it now fortunately.

  • This is a really interesting post. I remember a while back, I wrote a post about breathing and chronic pain. While researching for that I learned that the vagus nerve has an impact on pain too. Belly breathing can help, but I really wasn’t aware of the other suggestions you have written about here.
    Thank you for writing about this subject.

    • You’re welcome Elizabeth, thank you very much for your comment. It’s amazing how much impact the vagus nerve has and how beneficial exercises to activate it can be, it’s definitely a topic that needs more awareness being raised about it. It was one of the last things I learnt about yet it’s been something that’s resulted in the biggest improvement in my health.

  • This is a wonderful post. We get a lot of information here in Asia about, but whenever I’ve mentioned it to friends back home, they’re never quite sure what I’m talking about. You’ve got a lot of great tips here. I was especially happy to see your comments on accupressure, especially the wrist point which I do all the time, and singing.

    • Thank you so much Carrie, I really appreciate your comment. It’s amazing how much impact the vagus nerve has on the body yet how little awareness and knowledge there is about it. I love acupressure too, it always makes me feel better. It definitely gives me a good excuse to hum along to songs!

  • Hello, thank-you for these tips. Have you heard if doing the above items helps covid long haulers? I heard that the vagus nerve may be linked to the covid infection. I have had lingering side affects for 15 months…kinda ready for them to go away – lol. Thank-you for your remarks. Take care!

    • Hi Angélique. You’re welcome, thanks for getting in touch. There are studies that have been released showing how vagus nerve dysfunction is linked to long covid, so potentially these exercises may have some benefit. Hopefully more research will be undertaken on the effect of them soon confirming whether it eases the symptoms. I’m so sorry to hear how long you’ve been suffering from side effects for, I hope and pray you can find some relief soon. Thank you, you take care too.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this post! I have heard of the vagus nerve over the years but it is only until recently that I realised I can do things to stimulate it myself and I had no idea where to start. But I do acupuncture, meditation and yoga so maybe that’s why I find them so helpful? ahah I definitely want to look into Tai Chi too – have you ever tried it? Thanks again for all the info, I really appreciate the guidance 🙂

    • You’re welcome, thanks so for much for your comment Susie. The vagus nerve was one of the last things I read about yet it’s been one of the most beneficial things for me. Haha yes, I think that definitely might explain why you find those things helpful. No I’ve never tried Tai Chi, it’s something I keep meaning to start and try but have never got round to it yet. Let me know if you try it and what you think 🙂 You’re welcome, thanks so much again for getting in touch, I appreciate it.

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