The fight or flight response has a good track record for keeping humans alive – the caveat? Much of the stressors from centuries past are no longer with us, but that adrenaline rush still hits us when we’re feeling anxious, even if we’re not in physical danger – when was the last time you encountered a lion at the supermarket? The issue here is that many of us are living increasingly stressful lives, leading some to fall into chronic stress. But the vagus nerve could be the key to breaking the cycle – here’s how.
When we’re living with chronic stress, we end up with cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones wreaking havoc on our bodies and keeping us on high alert. The problem with living in this state is the gut issues, inflammation, pain, anxiety and low mood that inevitably result. But if this is hitting a little too close to home for you, take heart – it’s not all bad news! Luckily, there’s a special nerve system that has the power to combat the overwhelming stress and tension – it’s known as the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve combats our stress response system, instead triggering the body’s relaxation response. Here’s how you can stimulate your vagus nerve to reap the plentiful health benefits – after all, this nerve plays a major role in the function of our internal organs, from our digestion to heart rate and reflexes like coughing, sneezing and swallowing. But one of the most apparent effects is that of our mental health.
Deep breathing exercises
One of the easiest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve is through a process of slow, deep breathing. The reason it works so well is because our brain tends to shift its focus from the distressing sensations and onto the breathing process. In fact, you might notice you’re holding your breath in anticipation when feeling stressed, which only further contributes to those symptoms.
The best part is, you can do this anywhere with no equipment needed – just yourself! Here’s how:
Breathe in and out slowly, taking around 10 seconds for each breath.
Breathe deeply, from the diaghragm rather than from your throat. Imagine your stomach blowing up as you inhale.
Make sure your exhale is longer than your inhale.
Eat more fibre
This essential nutrient stimulates the vagus nerve’s impulses, meaning it helps get those calming messages to our brain by slowing our digestion and leaving us feeling fuller for longer. This is why you’ll want to avoid ultra-processed foods like commercial cakes, white bread, frozen meals and fast food – along with wreaking havoc on your gut, they’ll throw your nervous system out of whack – and with no fibre to soften the blow. Go for the following foods:
- Whole grains like quinoa, oats and buckwheat
- Fruit and veggies
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes like chickpeas and lentils
Gargling loudly with water – that is, vocalising while gargling – stimulates our vocal cords, and this is your key to hacking the vagus nerve! How? Well, the vocal cords have a knock-on effect in directly stimulating the vagus nerve fibres. So, next time you’re feeling anxious or stressed, instead of pacing around nervously, head to the sink and do some stress-relieving gargling.
Take a look at 3 other simple ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, all of which can be easily incorporated into your daily schedule:
- A hand or foot massage – the simple sensation of touch can stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Cold showers or immersion – this is a quick way to get your vagus nerve going. Cold water immersion – particularly the immersion of your face – will boost your immune system, aid intestinal function and slow your heart rate, all of which will help you relax. Aim to immerse you forehead, eyes and cheeks in cold water to get the best results.
- Laughter – laughter really is the best medicine – well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it does have some proven benefits. Not only can it boost your immune system, but it gets your vagus nerve going too.
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