The Vagus Nerve: Key to Mind-Body Connection

Written by Dr. Chan

February 19, 2024

The vagus nerve doesn’t typically get a lot of attention in conventional medicine, but it actually plays a vital role in orchestrating your body’s response to stress and inflammation. And it doesn’t stop there: The vagus nerve also influences gut health,  immune function and more!

Poor vagus nerve tone can influence your overall quality of life, but it is difficult to diagnose a problem without proper knowledge of how this vital nerve functions. Let’s take a look at the role of the vagus nerve and how you can optimize your vagus nerve response.


Stress Response and the Vagus Nerve

To understand the role of the vagus nerve, it’s important to know how your body responds to stress.

You’ve likely heard of the “flight or fight response.” When your mind senses a threat, your body responds by getting ready to flee danger or fight an opponent. Your sympathetic nervous system then kicks in and releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to speed up your heart, heighten alertness, and redirect energy to your muscles.


When your mind senses the danger is over, the parasympathetic nervous system works to relax your body. Your breathing slows, muscles relax, and you feel more relaxed.

The problem is, that today’s stress is typically more chronic, so the parasympathetic system isn’t able to calm things down. When faced with economic stressors, for example, your body may end up in a chronic state of fight or flight, which creates hormonal problems. 

The vagus nerve plays a role in the response of your parasympathetic nervous system. But when it can’t communicate well with the parasympathetic nervous system to help calm your body well, you can exist in a fight-or-flight state, which carries far-reaching health implications.

Because it delivers messages from your brain to your gut, it also plays a vital role in the gut-brain axis.

The gut-brain axis refers to the two-way communication network between your gut and your brain. This complex network plays a role in many components of well-being, including your digestion, immune responses, and emotional health.


Signs of Vagus Nerve Dysfunction

“Vagus” is derived from the Latin word for wandering, perhaps because it’s the longest cranial nerve and “wanders” into many parts of the body. As a result, it influences many bodily functions. Damage to your vagus nerve can impact your digestive system. An overly sensitive vagus nerve can also lead to fluctuations in blood pressure or heartbeat with the result of fainting.

Other signs of vagus nerve problems include:

  • Bloating
  • Unexplained pain in the belly
  • A hoarse voice
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Acid reflux
  • Feelings of dizziness or vertigo
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or joint pain

New research even suggests many people experiencing “long Covid” have poor vagus nerve tone, and that damage to the nerve from a Covid infection is a contributing factor to the prolonged symptoms.


Natural Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Regularly stimulating the vagus nerve maintains a crucial balance between our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. This balance influences heart rate, digestion, stress response, and inflammation levels, promoting overall well-being. By fine-tuning this balance, vagus nerve stimulation fosters a calmer nervous system, reduces stress, improves digestion, and supports mental and physical health.

Here are some natural ways to improve vagal nerve tone:

1 – Deep breathing

Every deep breath sends a signal to your parasympathetic nervous system. Try to develop a pattern where your exhales are twice as long as your inhales – two counts in, four counts out, for example.

2 – Meditation

The relaxation response triggered by meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn helps the vagus nerve.

3 – Try a cold plunge

A dip into a cold lake or pool can have positive effects on your nervous system. If you don’t like the idea of a chilly swim, ending your shower with a minute or two of cold water has a similar effect. Some people should avoid the shock of cold water, so clear this with a healthcare practitioner first, particularly if you have heart problems.

4 – Lose any excess weight

Carrying extra pounds can have a detrimental effect on your vagus nerve. This can be a bit of a Catch-22: poor vagus nerve function can make it harder to realize you’re full, which can lead to overeating.

The best approach is a natural foods diet that doesn’t stress your body and is sustainable over the long haul. We can help you find an approach that works for you!

5 – Eat the right foods

Studies have found that foods high in tryptophan can help reduce inflammation in the nervous system. Good sources of tryptophan include nuts, turkey, leafy greens, and bananas.

Excess sugar consumption can trigger inflammation and hurt nerve function, so work to reduce sweets from your diet (and that includes sweet drinks!)

Because of its role in the gut-brain axis, a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps support your vagus nerve function. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and natural yogurt contain beneficial probiotics your gut needs to thrive!

6 – Try intermittent fasting.

Research shows that restricting meals to certain windows can improve vagus nerve function. It’s important to work with your healthcare practitioner to determine if fasting works for you.

7 – Gargling or singing

Activities that involve the muscles in the back of your throat, like gargling or singing, activate the vagus nerve, contributing to its stimulation and relaxation response.

8 – Massage or Acupuncture

Therapies like massage or acupuncture can trigger the vagus nerve by stimulating specific pressure points, contributing to relaxation and improved mood.


Don’t overlook the importance of your vagus nerve in maintaining overall wellness! Its role in regulating your body’s nervous system is key to managing stress, digestion, inflammation, and more. If you’re eager to explore effective ways of enhancing your nervous system function and optimizing your well-being, I’m here to guide you. Your well-being starts with a conversation—let’s get started!



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