The vagus nerve is connected to many regions of the brain and body, which regulates functions in the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). When the vagus nerve is functioning properly, it can help to maintain a sense of calm, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and generally add to the quality of life. It can also aid in achieving flow states more frequently.
When the vagal nerve is not functioning properly, it can create chronic fatigue, anxiety, gut and digestive problems, along with many others. The vagus nerve is perhaps one of the most important especially in the modern age where stress is an everyday part of urban life.
There are a few surprising natural ways to increase vagus nerve stimulation in addition to a few nootropic options.
Vagus Nerve Damage
The vagus nerve is directly linked to (and responsible for) the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the often neglected part of our system, which becomes overworked in modern environments. Between the stressors of family responsibilities, work, and little free time to truly “rest”, many people struggle from vagus nerve damage.
One major cause of vagus nerve damage is circadian rhythm dysfunction. While it is nice to go out and spend time with friends late into the night, doing this too often (or in the wrong sequence) can often destroy the circadian rhythm and disrupt the vagus nerve .
There are numerous symptoms of vagus nerve damage because it runs throughout our body. Some people struggle with brain problems in addition to gut problems that seem unrelated, but are not. It’s safe to say that most people are suffering from a weak vagus nerve and could benefit from the following practices.
Natural Vagus Nerve Stimulation
As much as we believe in nootropics and smart drugs, there are often natural ways of treating our biological challenges. When it comes to the vagus nerve, there are a few practices that can directly stimulate this part of the body and provide downstream benefits.
Very few of these have been tested specifically on the vagus nerve as that would be virtually impossible in humans. Instead, there are other markers that indicate “rest and digest” or parasympathetic nervous system activation. These include things like HRV (heart-rate variability) among others.
- Thermogenesis (Cold Therapy)
- Kundalini Yoga
- Social Relationships
Using cold therapy can be as simple as cold showers. You could also use cryotherapy or ice baths depending on how far you would like to take it, but there is plenty of evidence that doing so will increase vagal stimulation.
In a 2008 study, researchers concluded that “cold habituation lowers sympathetic activation and causes a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity” . In essence, cold therapy helped people go from stressed to in a more relaxed state.
Another study showed that almost any kind of cold exposure will increase vagus nerve activation .
<i>I'm getting my cold-therapy on in an Iceland glacier pool</i>
If cold isn’t your thing, there are alternatives. Traditional yoga movements can stimulate the vagus nerve as well, but I am partial to kundalini yoga specifically. Numerous studies on yoga find that a general practice can increase activation of that “rest and digest” system .
Kundalini is a personal favorite because it adds in other modalities that increase parasympathetic tone. One 2013 study in Frontiers in Psychology found that chanting and singing could increase HRV (a marker of vagus nerve stimulation). Beyond that, chanting in unison (synchronized) could increase vagal function . Both chanting and doing so in unison are elements of kundalini yoga.
Fasting can also increase vagus nerve stimulation. According to a 2006 study, caloric restriction helped to improve HRV and reduce blood pressure and heart rate . All of these are signs of vagal nerve activation.
Finally, and this should be considered one of the most important, there are social interactions and relationships. Humans have evolved to be highly community oriented creatures, which makes it highly beneficial in such a disconnected world. Studies of people who have simply had positive and loving thoughts towards others were found to have higher vagal tone.
That says nothing of the benefits that having a meal with friends and family can do for stimulating the vagus nerve.
Nootropics and Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Often the best way to solve any challenge is by tackling it from multiple angles. If you utilize all of the above-mentioned habits and lifestyle changes, there is a good chance vagal tone will increase rapidly. Combining this with nootropics could lead to more effective solutions.
Fish Oil – It seems that fish oil is a ubiquitous health solution even for something like air purification (from airborne pollutants). In a 2006 study, both EPA and DHA (the main omega-3s) helped reduce heart rate and increase HRV . Direct signs that fish oil activates the vagus nerve.
5-HTP – While often used for improving sleep quality or mood (especially after a rave), the 5-HTP supplement could be useful for stimulating the vagus nerve. In fact, two studies focused specifically on the 5-HTP and vagus nerve connection. Both confirmed the possible benefits of taking this supplement .
Zinc – The final safe nootropic tool for improving vagal tone is zinc. In one study, animals that were orally administered zinc saw improved vagal stimulation as well . Given many people are deficient in zinc, it could be a good supplement to add.
Oxytocin – For the same reason social relationships can be greatly beneficial for people with low vagus nerve tone, a simple oxytocin supplement (in the form of a spray) can be helpful as well. A 2015 study found that oxytocin (injected) activated vagal activity . Oxytocin spray is somewhat of a challenge to find in supplemental form so be safe when searching.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The number one risk associated with vagus nerve stimulation is not being able to diagnose the problem in the first place. Many people who suffer from gastrointestinal distress or gut problems do not realize they are low on vagal tone.
While there are ways to check your gut and intestinal tract for parasites and overgrowths, also consider that it could be a damaged or poorly stimulated vagus nerve. By taking the lifestyle tips we have recommended above, you can see whether it helps those symptoms go away before taking more expensive and invasive action.