The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the brain through all our major organs. High vagus nerve tone is essential for overall health, both physical and mental. It’s associated with reduced pain, inflammation, anxiety, stress and fatigue and improved digestion, energy, sleep and mood. Improving vagus nerve activation has been shown to ease symptoms for a range of chronic illnesses, including chronic fatigue, migraines, fibromyalgia and autoimmune conditions. Here are 12 vagus nerve exercises to improve physical and mental health and help manage chronic illness symptoms.
Disclaimer: This vagus nerve exercises 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. Therefore, it affects numerous functions of the body, including our:-
- Energy levels,
- Heart rate,
- Blood pressure,
- Blood sugar levels,
- Breathing and
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).
the importance of the vagus nerve for physical and mental health
Low vagus nerve tone causes the sympathetic nervous system, our stress response, to be overactive and is associated with:-
- 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,
- Weight gain,
- Impaired sleep and insomnia,
- Autoimmune conditions,
- Cardiovascular problems and more (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
In contrast, a high vagus nerve tone calms our whole body and puts us in the parasympathetic rest and relaxation state, which improves our physical and mental health in numerous ways:-
- 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 measure vagus nerve activity
There are 2 ways to measure vagus nerve activity.
method 1 – 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 exercises – the higher it is the better. You can measure this with a smartwatch (UK Link/US Link).
method 2 – sesame seed transit time
Devices needed to measure heart rate variability can be expensive. So a cheap alternative method 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 vagus nerve tone (9).
12 exercises to increase activation
vagus nerve exercise 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).
vagus nerve exercise 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).
vagus nerve exercise 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.
vagus nerve exercise 4). Yoga
Yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and increases parasympathetic nervous system activation, which has been shown to have the following benefits:-
Vagus nerve exercise 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. 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,
- 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.
vagus nerve exercise 6). Prayer/Meditation
vagus nerve exercise 7). Acupuncture
Acupuncture, specifically at the stomach 36 and Nei Guan P6 points, stimulate the vagus nerve and increase heart rate variability, while also reducing inflammation and nausea and vomiting, respectively (18, 19). You can stimulate these points yourself by applying firm downward pressure on them with your thumb or finger in a circular motion.
Stomach 36 point location
- Approximately 4 finger widths down from the bottom of your kneecap on the outside of your shin bone.
- As you press on this point you should feel the muscle press and release against your finger as you move your foot up and down.
- Approximately 3 finger widths down from your wrist in between the 2 tendons.
vagus nerve exercise 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).
To maximise the stimulation of the vagus nerve, massage the feet and carotid sinus’, on the side of the neck (21).
vagus nerve exercise 9). Tai Chi
vagus nerve exercise 10). Omega 3 fats
Omega 3 anti-inflammatory fats can be found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel), flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts. They stimulate the vagus nerve and have been shown to reduce resting heart rates and increase heart rate variability (24).
vagus nerve exercise 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).
vagus nerve exercise 12). Probiotics
The vagus nerve innervates the gut. Probiotics and fermented foods increase the good bacteria in the gut, which stimulates 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)
- Kimchi (UK Link/US Link)
- Ruby Kraut
- Beet Kvass
- Water kefir
- Coconut milk kefir
I love that there’s such a range of vagus nerve exercises that are free or affordable, some of which can be done laying in bed, so there’s something suitable for everyone.
other blog posts on health and wellness
Click to read my other blog posts with tips and strategies that are helping me improve my health and wellbeing:-
- 10 Free Ways To Improve Your Health
- Anxiety & Stress Relief – 15 Things To Do In Bed
- Hydration – 9 Tips To Stay Hydrated
- Healthy Food Swaps For Any Dietary Requirement
- 6 Free Ways To Start A Toxin Free Lifestyle
- 6 Detox Pathways To Support To Remove Toxins From The Body
- 15 Easy Ways To Detox Your Home (& Why It’s Important For Health)
- 10 Tips To Stay Cool & Survive The Summer Heat
- 5 Tips To Maximise The Health Benefits Of Sunlight
Other blog posts on chronic illness
Click to read my other blog posts with other tips and strategies that are helping me improve my health and manage chronic illness:-
- Managing Symptoms – 6 Things To Do In Bed
- 10 Free Ways To Improve Your Health
- Morning Routine – 7 Things That Ease My Symptoms In The Morning
- Hydration – 9 Tips To Stay Hydrated
- 15 Things To Do In Bed To Ease Anxiety & Stress During Flares
- The Elimination Diet That Eased My Symptoms
- 6 Free Ways To Start a Toxin Free Lifestyle (& Why It’s Important to Help Ease Symptoms)
- 6 Detox Pathways To Support To Remove Toxins & Help Ease Symptoms
- 15 Easy Ways To Detox Your Home (& How It Can Help Ease Symptoms)
- 10 Tips To Stay Cool & Ease Symptoms In The Summer Heat
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