1. Deep breathing
Deep breathing doesn’t sound like much, but it’s probably the best way to stimulate vagal activity. In fact, researchers suspect vagus nerve activation, by way of their focus on deep breathing, helps explain why meditation and yoga are so beneficial (2). We’re not sure exactly how this works, but it’s thought that deep belly breathing and the Ujjayi breath, also known as ocean breath, send signals to the vagus nerve that tell it to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Vagal tone is intricately connected to heart rate variability, which is the variation in time between your heartbeats and a very effective way to measure how relaxed or anxious you are. Study after study has shown that exercise improves heart rate variability (3) by increasing vagal tone and decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is essentially the counterpart to the parasympathetic nervous system; it’s activated in times of stress and has earned the nickname the “fight or flight” response.
3. Singing in the shower (preferably, a cold shower)
Much like breathing, singing stimulates the vagus nerve and can improve vagal tone. One study showed that professional singers had better heart rate variability (4) and increase PNS activity (as an added bonus, singing also increased energy and improved mood). This makes a lot of sense when you learn that your voice box is actually connected to your vagus nerve directly. So, why the shower? And why a cold shower? Because cold exposure is also one of the best ways to stimulate the vagus nerve (5) (as well as your metabolism!).
Whether you are getting a professional massage or giving yourself a foot, neck, or scalp massage right in your home, you’ll be activating your vagus nerve, too. Studies have shown increased vagal activity (6) following the stimulating of pressure receptors during massage therapy.
5. Get your omega 3s
Healthy fats are one of the most important aspects of your diet. And omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fatty fish, nuts, and seeds, have a beneficial effect on vagal tone and heart rate variability. For example, one study published in Frontiers in Physiology showed that supplementing with omega-3s (7), which are extremely important for brain-heart health, led to a decreased heart rate at rest.
As Dr. Mladen Golubic, the Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic, once said: “The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” Clearly, the vagus nerve has far-reaching effects on our health. And it’s up to us to make sure we’re supporting it as much as we can!
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