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Is the Vagus Nerve the Key to Unlocking Well Being

To say the Nervous System is complex is an understatement. Well, more research may be adding to its complexity. That is the research on the Vagus Nerve.

The vagus nerve – otherwise known as the “vagabond” of the nervous system, because of the vast area it covers sending sensory signals throughout the body. It has vast effects on the body, controlling varying aspects of health, that may deem it the key to well-being.

What is the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is number ten of twelve cranial nerves. Meaning, it literally comes directly out from the brainstem, rather than the spinal cord like our other nerves. The vagus nerve is complex, as it provides sensory, motor, special sensory and parasympathetic (the calming part of the nervous system) feedback to the brain.

The vagus nerve travels from the brainstem to organs in the body. Specifically, it provides sensory feedback from the throat, heart, lungs and abdomen, meaning it tells the brain what’s going on in these organs. It also supplies taste sensation, movement of the muscles that control speech and swallowing and is responsible for heart rate, digestive functioning and respiration.

7 Impacts of the Vagus Nerve on Well-Being

Prevents & reduces inflammation

It is well known that inflammation in excess is detrimental to health. With inflammation, certain PRO-inflammatory chemicals are released into the bloodstream (1). The vagus nerve senses these chemical markers in the body, and when present in excess, it sends signals to the brain to release more ANTI-inflammatory chemicals instead, thus combatting inflammatory stress on the body. Studies have also found that implants that artificially stimulate the vagus nerve can reduce inflammation so much it can put rheumatoid arthritis into remission.

Knowing what we know about the ability of excess inflammation to cause conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, the vagus nerve can be a game-changer in fighting and preventing these diseases.

Vital for breathing

The vagus nerve has a huge influence on the brain – telling it what kinds of chemicals to release into the body. It plays a crucial role in breathing as it stimulates the brain to release acetylcholine – a chemical that basically tells your lungs to do their job and breathe for you.

Deep abdominal breathing or box breathing (holding the breath for four to eight seconds) can help stimulate the vagus nerve, highlighting the importance of belly breathing. Breathing is great for overall stability and core strength, but it can also be a great tool for tapping in to the amazing benefits of the vagus nerve. Placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth and breathing in through the nose for a count of four, then matching that with an exhalation for a count of four can help bring us from an overworking and high-strung nervous system response (sympathetic) to a calm and relaxed nervous system response (parasympathetic).

Effects your heart

Remember that chemical signal acetylcholine that the vagus nerve tells the brain to release? Well this important chemical slows heart rate. Acetylcholine is basically the hearts’ natural pacemaker.

Why do we want a slower heart rate?

Well, overall heart health is improved when the heart can send out more blood i.e. greater force of each beat means less beats necessary per minute. That means each beat is so strong, that the pace of the heart can be slower. Some schools of thought say our heart has a limited amount of beats in our lifetime…so slow heart rate may equal longer lifespan!

A slower heart rate is also associated with a parasympathetic nervous system response. In other words, stress increases our heart rate and things that decrease stress (diaphragmatic breathing, meditation) decrease our heart rate.

Controls Gut-Brain connection

The vagus nerve intimately regulates the connection between the brain and the gut. It is responsible for taking signals from the gut to the brain. You’ve heard the saying “gut feeling” or “gut reaction”. That’s because the gut has its own nervous system called the Enteric Nervous system, and it communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve. In this way, vagus nerve stimulation can have implications in treatment for gut conditions like IBS, but also psychiatric conditions, like PTSD, mood and anxiety disorders.

Helps make memories

Research shows vagus nerve activation can strengthen one’s memory. It does this by stimulating the release of a chemical from the brain called norepinephrine, which merges and compartmentalizes memories. (2)

Think about it, when you’re frazzled or stressed, it’s probably harder to think straight or find your keys. When you’re nervous system is calm it’s easier to think clearly and compartmentalize thoughts as well as emotions and memory.

“Chill out” Response

We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight response.” This is the body’s Sympathetic nervous system reacting to stress by releasing the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline. This system is necessary, say if a lion comes into your room at this very moment and you need to gear up to either fight it (probably not) or hit the ground running (probably so). Well, the vagus nerve tells your body to calm down, following this kind of pumped up response by releasing that chemical that slows the heart rate. This response is so important in responding to and recovering from stress, illness or injury and restore balance to the body.

Overstimulation can cause fainting

This makes sense. If there is an overactivation of stress, the body responds by overstimulating the vagus nerve. Too much of a good thing – i.e. too many chemicals that slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure, means less blood to the brain and we faint.

So if those are all the things that the vagus nerve controls – and it’s a lot – what happens when it’s not functioning at it’s best or at all? What can vagus nerve dysfunction cause in the body, and better yet, what can stimulation of the vagus nerve treat?

Dysfunction of the vagus nerve can cause…

  • Obesity
  • Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Gastrointestinal diseases
  • Fainting
  • Mood disorders/anxiety
  • Chronic inflammation
  • B12 deficiency
  • Seizures

Stimulation can treat…

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Anxiety/mood disorders
  • Migraine
  • Alzheimers
  • Leaky gut
  • Tinnitus
  • Cancer
  • Poor circulation

How to stimulate the vagus nerve

Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization Breathing

Deeply and slowly! Belly breathing where inhalation time matches exhalation time helps activate receptors in the heart and neck that then stimulate the vagus nerve to lower blood pressure. We often treat and train patients with a Core 350 Breathing Belt to help facilitate this type of breathing. Not only is it great for vagus nerve stimulation, but it also helps strengthen our deep core muscles that are responsible for overall stabilization of the body and spine.


Add this to the list of the many benefits of exercise. Exercise has been shown to activate the vagus nerve, which may be part of the reason why exercise is so great for mental health. As we know, the vagus nerve facilitates gut flow, exercise enhances this as well leading to improved digestion. Strength exercise is a great way to create muscle stability and stimulate the vagus nerve.

Active Release Technique

Massage, specifically of the neck and feet, can stimulate the vagus nerve. Chinese medicine notes various acupressure points in the feet that activate and increase vagal activity. It can also release oxytocin promoting a feeling of relaxation.

Cold Immersion Therapy

Research shows that in order for the body to adjust to cold temperature, it goes from sympathetic nervous system to parasympathetic nervous system. For this to happen, vagus nerve involvement occurs. So cold therapy, like cryotherapy and cold showers, can increase vagus nerve activity. (3)

Yoga/Tai Chi

Research shows that yoga and tai chi are able to release a calming chemical in the brain called GABA, because they activate vagus nerve sensory fibers which allow for this.(4)

Laughter/Positive Social Relationships

They say happiness breeds happiness right. Laughter actually boosts your immune system by triggering the release of endorphins. It also has been found to stimulate the vagus nerve. Research has also shown that sitting silently and thinking positive thoughts about friends and family increases positive emotions and stimulates the vagus nerve more so than sitting in silence and meditating. (4)

To sum it up – the nervous system governs all! In general, we want to live in a parasympathetic ruled state (rest and digest) 80% of the time, and a sympathetic ruled state 20% of the time. As New Yorkers, this is reversed! So, all of the help we can get stimulating our Vagus Nerve is extra important.

If you’re looking for more ways to increase overall well-being we can help! Feel free to call 212-355-0445 or email us at


Dr. Adriana Lazare, DC

(1). Chen L, Deng H, Cui H, et al. Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs. Oncotarget. 2017;9(6):7204–7218. Published 2017 Dec 14. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.23208
(2) Sun L, Peräkylä J, Holm K, Haapasalo J, Lehtimäki K, Ogawa KH, Peltola J, Hartikainen KM. Vagus nerve stimulation improves working memory performance. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2017 Dec;39(10):954-964. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2017.1285869. Epub 2017 Feb 19. PubMed PMID: 28492363
(3) Jungmann M, Vencatachellum S, Van Ryckeghem D, Vögele C. Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Form Res. 2018;2(2):e10257. Published 2018 Oct 9. doi:10.2196/10257
(4) Krishnakumar D, Hamblin MR, Lakshmanan S. Meditation and Yoga can Modulate Brain Mechanisms that affect Behavior and Anxiety-A Modern Scientific Perspective. Anc Sci. 2015;2(1):13–19. doi:10.14259/as.v2i1.171
(4) Kok B, Coffey K, Cohn M, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science. 2013; Volume: 24 issue: 7, page(s): 1123-1132. Published 2013 May 6.