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What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body, connecting your brain to the rest of your organs.
It regulates autonomous functions like breathing, the beating of your heart and digestion.
How can activating the vagus nerve help with digestion?
The vagus nerve is responsible for the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (AKA “rest and digest” mode) which controls how quickly food travels through your guts, as well as the secretion of gastric juices and digestive enzymes that handle the chemical breakdown of food.
Simply put, when we stimulate our vagus nerve, we are preparing our body and GI tract for relaxation and digestion.
Five ways to engage the vagus nerve for better digestion
We normally take between 10 and 14 breaths a minute – diaphragmatic breathing slows this down to about six breaths a minute. In doing so, this has been shown to reduce anxiety and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Here’s an exercise to try:
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. You can close your eyes too, if you’d like.
- Now take slow, deep breaths in from your diaphragm – your stomach should extend.
- Exhale slowly so your stomach retracts.
Repeat this exercise for 3-5 minutes and practice it before eating.
Research shows that this relaxation technique can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
Having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax quicker and get back into “rest and digest” mode after being exposed to stress.
How to meditate:
- Pick the right environment – find place to meditate that feels calm and quiet.
- Set a timer – if you’re just starting out, just shoot for a short time, like five or 10 minutes.
- Sit comfortably – you can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, loosely cross-legged on the floor, or kneel. Just make sure you are stable and comfortable.
- Notice your breath – follow the sensation of your breath as it goes in and as it goes out.
- Bring attention back to your breath – inevitably, your mind will wander. When you notice this happening, simply return your attention to your breath.
- Be kind to your wandering mind – don’t judge yourself or obsess over your thoughts, just bring your focus back to your breath.
- Finish mindfully – when you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (or if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in your environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
adapted from mindful.org
Meditation takes practice but it’s really worth making the effort to incorporate it into your life.
Yoga encourages both slow, deep breathing and meditation.
Try these asanas:
- Child’s pose (balasana)
- Mountain pose (tadasana)
- Legs-up-the-wall pose (viparita karani)
- Bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana)
- Crocodile pose (makarasana)
- Corpse pose (savasana)
I love to start my morning with a 20-30 minute session on my yoga mat to set my intentions for the day.
Intense, temporary cold exposure activates the vagus nerve and increases parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Cold showers are the easiest way to reap the benefits of cold exposure. Try finishing your next shower with a 30 second blast of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time if you can handle it.
Singing, gargling and humming
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat.
Singing, gargling and humming can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.
Try gargling with your water before you swallow it, or have some karaoke fun with friends!