The Vagus Nerve

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is a bidirectional communication network between our brain and many of the body’s organs including the gut, heart and lungs. The word “vagus” in latin translates to wanderer, which is a good description for this nerve, as it wanders all over the body innervating different organs and tissues.

The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system and regulates whether we feel calm, how our immune system functions, the inflammation levels in our body and how hungry we feel.

More research is emerging identifying the link between many chronic disease states and poor vagal tone. Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing its tone is our gateway to unlocking the rest of the nervous system and improving our mental, emotional and physical health. 

How do we stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone?

There are a range of different methods to stimulate the vagus nerve, many of which don’t cost anything and are able to be practiced at home on your own. With regular practice, these techniques can help to increase vagal tone, measurable by changes in heart rate, breathing rate and heart rate variability (HRV). When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. 

Slow and deep breathing

Slowing down your breathing rate and breathing diaphragmatically, so that the breath expands and contracts your belly is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This can help to slow down heart rate, reduce blood pressure and induce a sense of calm. This style of breathing has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety and improve immune system function. 

How to:

Various breathing techniques can be adopted, with a focus on slowing down breathing rate to about 6 breaths per minute and allowing your belly to move in and out with the different phases of the breath. Lengthening the exhale breath is also key to stimulating the vagus nerve. Here are some ways to practice slow and deep breathing: 

1. Inhale slowly over 6-8 counts, exhale slowly over 8-10 counts

2. Box breathing: inhale slowly for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, hold the exhale for 4 counts. 

Singing, chanting, humming and gargling

When we sing, chant, hum and gargle we are activating the vocal cords and muscles at the back of the throat which are connected to the vagus nerve. Engaging in these practices regularly may increase vagal tone and heart-rate variability, which is associated with an improvement in stress resilience and relaxation.  

How to:

The best thing about these methods is that most of them can be practiced as you go about your daily routines. Try exercising your vocal cords by humming while you work, gargling after you brush your teeth or singing your favourite tune while you’re washing the dishes or in the shower.  There is evidence that all forms of singing and chanting, including loud and expressive, or soft and gentle stimulate the vagus nerve. 

Exposure to the cold

Regular acute exposure to cold temperatures stimulates the vagus nerve and increases vagal tone. There is also evidence that regular cold exposure lowers the sympathetic nervous system response and increases the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to reduce stress markers and may provide relief from anxiety and depression. 

How to:

Expose your body to the cold with cold showers and dips in icy oceans, lakes or rivers. If you have a bathtub at home, you could create an ice bath or book yourself in for a contrast therapy or cryotherapy session. Ease yourself into it – start with short cold blasts in the shower and slowly build up your tolerance. It’s important to note here that if you have a condition affecting the cardiovascular system, speak with your healthcare provider before practicing cold therapy.


Meditation practices involving a conscious awareness of the breath are able to activate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. Styles of meditation including mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness have been shown to increase heart rate variability associated with an increase in vagal tone. These practices also help to lower the sympathetic nervous system response and increase positive emotions. 

How to:

For a breath awareness meditation find a quiet space somewhere in your home. Bring your body into a comfortable position, whether you’re seated with your legs crossed, sitting in a chair or lying down. Tune into the sounds around you, the feeling of your body resting on the ground. Slowly draw your attention to the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Keep coming back to the breath each time your mind travels away from it. Connect with the way your body moves with each breath.

There are many other methods for stimulating the vagus nerve and improving vagal tone and even some nutrients you can boost and devices and surgical implants that can benefit people with chronic illness. Whatever technique you use, the key is to stay consistent to reap the rewards of better vagal tone.

Written by Shaz Andrew, Naturopath and Holistic Nutritionist