Get to know your vagus nerve

Did you know that the healthier your ‘vagal tone’ is the better your body is at relaxing, recovering from states of anxiety and maintaining a healthy equilibrium in your body.

Your vagal tone is the effectiveness of your vagus nerve’s response and is something we can all strengthen.

The vagus nerve

We all have a vagus nerve. It starts in the brain stem, travels down each side of the neck, across the chest and down through the abdomen. It is called the vagus nerve after the Latin ‘vagus’ which means ‘wandering’. This nerve has a bundle of nerve fibres that meander through the body connecting the brain to all our vital organs including the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys. It is the longest nerve in the body sending information to our brains about the body’s current state. The brain, in turn, sends information down this nerve instructing the muscles and organs.

Most importantly it is the vagus nerve that keeps our bodies’ systems in balance, regulating the rest, repair and digest functions as well as the fluids in the body. It is part of the relaxation response and is vital for keeping our bodies healthy.

Strengthening your vagal tone

By strengthening your vagal tone your body will become better and faster at relaxing, recovering from stress and anxiety, and be healthier.

The good news is that vagal tone can be strengthened through simple, yet effective, breathing techniques. Tom Granger in his book Draw Breath says that the vagus nerve stimulates the diaphragm into action and that through deep diaphragmatic breathing you can easily and deliberately ‘activate’ the vagus nerve, kick starting the soothing effects of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The following two breathing exercises are designed to strengthen the vagal response.

Deep belly breathing exercise

This is breathing deeply so you feel your belly inflate and rise rather than normal shallower breaths that stay in the chest. To practice this, keep one hand on your belly so you can feel when your belly rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale. When you feel comfortable with the technique try the following adapted from Draw Breath by Tom Granger:

  • Start by breathing in through your nose into your belly. Breathe slowly and deeply in
  • Then exhale slowly and with ease through your mouth, feeling your shoulders relax as you exhale, making a sighing noise as you breathe out
  • Let all your breath out and notice your natural pause before inhaling again
  • Continue with this breathing rhythm for a few minutes. The longer you do this exercise the stronger your vagal tone will become
  • When you finish take a moment to connect with how you feel. Do you notice any differences to how your mind and body feels from before you started? What sensations are your experiencing?

Extending out breath exercise

Another breathing exercise that stimulates the vagus nerve is extending your outbreath for longer than your inbreath. Deep belly breathing can also be applied here to make it more effective.

I have shown here how I have drawn my breath, creating a breathing rectangle enabling me to focus on my breath and maintain a rhythm of exhaling for longer than my inhalation. I can also notice with awareness my natural pause at the end of my outbreaths.

This technique can be applied anywhere at any time when you feel a need to pause and just be for a moment and slow your busy mind and tune in your body; taking a mindfulness moment that also increases your vagal tone and wellbeing.

References:

Draw Breath by Tom Ganger, Summerdale Publishers 2019

What does your vagal nerve do? by The Mind Body Centre, 2019

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