Activating our parasympathetic nervous system and 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 and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system has been shown to ease symptoms for a range of chronic illnesses. Below I detail what the parasympathetic nervous system and 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 how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system with 14 simple simple vagus nerve exercises that can improve health and help manage chronic illness symptoms.
Disclaimer: This 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. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. See my full disclaimer here. First published 30 April 2021. Last updated 2 March 2023.
Jump To Section:-
- What is the parasympathetic nervous system?
- Importance of the vagus nerve
- What can damage the vagus nerve & impair parasympathetic nervous system activation
- Sympathetic dominance symptoms
- Benefits of parasympathetic nervous system activation
- How to test vagus nerve function
- 14 exercises to activate the vagus nerve & parasympathetic nervous system
- Other health and wellness posts
What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
The parasympathetic nervous system, along with the sympathetic nervous system, forms our autonomic nervous system, which controls every body function that occurs without us consciously thinking about it, including:-
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature (1)
The sympathetic nervous system is activated in response to a threat, danger or stressful situation to trigger the fight or fight stress response increasing the release of stress hormones and speeding up body functions to help protect us, for example, causing us to run from a lion (1).
The parasympathetic nervous system counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system by exerting a relaxing effect on the body. It’s the state we need to be in for our body to digest and absorb nutrients from our food, for our body to heal, regenerate and become stronger and detoxify and eliminate toxins and chemicals from our body (1).
Importance of The Vagus Nerve
A major part of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve – the longest nerve in the body – running from our brain down through our eyes, ears, vocal cords and down to all our major organs, including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and gut – affecting every body function (1). It acts as a switch helping us to move back and forth between the two nervous system states, switching off our sympathetic stress response and returning to the parasympathetic rest and digest state when stressful events have finished (1).
What Can Damage The Vagus Nerve & Impair Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation
However, the following factors can lower vagus nerve function and cause the sympathetic nervous system to remain active for extended periods of time and become dominant:-
- Poor diet high in processed foods
- Lack of sleep
- Overstimulation from screens
- Health and financial concerns
- Being constantly on the go with no time to rest
Related Post: 20 Healthy Food & Drink Swaps
Sympathetic Dominance Symptoms
Low vagal tone and sympathetic dominance suppresses our immune system. It negatively affects our health and can contribute to and cause numerous symptoms and conditions, including:-
- Muscle tension, especially around the neck and shoulders
- Increased pain & inflammation,
- Increased heart rate,
- Chronic fatigue,
- Elevated blood sugar & blood pressure,
- Impaired digestion and digestive issues like nausea & bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation,
- Poor sleep and insomnia,
- Weight gain,
- Increased anxiety, stress and depression,
- Headaches, migraines & dizziness etc.
- Frequent infections,
- Increased irritability,
- Difficulty focussing and remembering things,
- Unable to think rationally,
- Impaired mood,
- Cardiovascular problems,
- Hormone imbalances,
The Healing Power of The Vagus Nerve – Benefits Of Parasympathetic Nervous System Stimulation
Like these 10 nervous system reset exercises, there are simple things we can do to stimulate the vagus nerve, switch off the sympathetic nervous system and activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Improving vagus nerve tone and parasympathetic nervous system activation calms the whole body and has been shown to improve physical and mental health and ease symptoms for a range of chronic conditions, such as:-
- Reducing pain and inflammation,
- Improving sleep,
- Improving digestion and absorption of nutrients from our food, helping to ease digestive complaints like nausea, gas and bloating,
- Reducing fatigue and boosting energy,
- Reducing heart and breathing rates,
- Controlling blood sugar and blood pressure,
- Increasing calmness and relaxation to help ease anxiety, stress and depression,
- Boosting our immune system,
Related Post: 10 Nervous System Reset Exercises
How To Test Vagus Nerve Function & Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity
There are 2 ways to measure vagus nerve activity.
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).
Test 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).
14 Exercises To Stimulate Parasympathetic Nervous System & The Vagus Nerve
Improving vagal tone and parasympathetic nervous system activation doesn’t need to cost money or require lots of time and effort. You can naturally stimulate them quickly and easily at home with the below 14 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.
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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).
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,
- 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). Touch Your Lips
Lips have parasympathetic fibres spread throughout them. Running your fingers gently over your lips can stimulate them (29, 30).
5). Half Salamander Exercise
The Half Salamander Exercise is a quick and easy exercise from Stanley Rosenberg’s book Accessing The Healing Power Of The Vagus Nerve (UK Link/US Link) that instantly activates the vagus nerve and our parasympathetic nervous system as well as:-
- Increasing upper back thoracic mobility,
- Reducing forward head posture by bringing the head into better alignment with the spine.
- Increasing breathing capacity to help ease anxiety and stress.
- Sit in a comfortable upright position
- While keeping your head facing forwards, bring your right ear towards your right shoulder and look with your eyes to the left
- Hold this position until you yawn, swallow or sigh.
- Then repeat on the opposite side. Keeping your head facing forwards, bring your left ear towards your left shoulder and look with your eyes to the right. Hold position again until you yawn, swallow or sigh.
Below is a video demonstration of how to perform this exercise.
6). The Basic Exercise
The Basic Exercise is another simple exercise by Stanley Rosenberg which combines upper back mobility and using our peripheral vision to instantly activate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system.
The Basic Exercise can be performed laying down or in a seated upright position.
- Interlock your fingers and place your hands against the back of your head.
- While keeping your head facing forwards, look with your eyes to the left.
- Hold this position until you yawn, swallow or sigh.
- Then while still keeping your head facing forwards, look with your eyes to the right. Again hold this position until you yawn, swallow or sigh.
Below is a video demonstrating how to perform this exercise.
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,
The below video has 4 yoga poses for vagus nerve stimulation that can even be done laying in bed.
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8). 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,
- Eating popsicles/ice lollies, like these Healthy Tropical Popsicles/Ice Lollies.
Related Post: 10 Healthy Habits To Improve Your Health For Free
9). 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
10). Acupressure & Acupunture
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.
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
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).
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12). Omega 3 Fats
Omega 3 anti-inflammatory fats can be found in:-
- Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines),
If you don’t want to buy pre activated ones, you can Activate Nuts and Seeds easily at home. Omega 3 fats stimulate the vagus nerve and have been shown to reduce resting heart rates and increase heart rate variability (24).
Related Post: Activate Nuts and Seeds (Instructions & Benefits)
13). 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 and parasympathetic nervous system activation (25). As each different food feeds a different type of good bacteria in the gut, eating 30 plants a week is recommended to optimise gut health (30). Eating seasonally, following this Eat The Seasons Month By Month Guide, is one way of reaching this target.
Related Posts: Eating 30 Plants A Week (8 Tips, Checklist & Health Benefits) & Eat The Seasons (Month By Month Guide & Benefits)
The vagus nerve innervates the gut. Probiotics and fermented foods, like this Fermented Red Cabbage Sauerkraut, 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:-
- Sauerkraut (UK Link/US Link), or make your own at home using this Fermented Red Cabbage Sauerkraut Recipe
- Water kefir
- Coconut milk kefir
Other Health & Wellness Posts
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15 thoughts on “How To Activate Parasympathetic Nervous System (14 Ways)”
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.
A great intro to what the vagus nerve is, what it’s functioning means for us and easy ways to support it. I love that I already do several regularly (yoga teacher) 🙂
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!
I enjoy reading this post. Thanks for the information.
You’re welcome Hillel, I’m really pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for getting in touch. I hope you’re well.
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.