Average Reading Time: 2 minutes and 19 seconds
Researchers have been fascinated by the power of the vagus nerve for centuries. The “wandering vagus nerve” ventures from the brain into the abdomen, touching and feed-backing information to the brain from just about every organ in the body.
The claim to fame of the vagus nerve is its control over the parasympathetic nervous system, which is called the “rest and digest” nervous system. Not only does it calm and rejuvenate the body, it also antidotes the life-saving, but degenerative “fight or flight” nervous system.
The human body may be well-equipped chemically with stress hormones to flee from a bear or even wrestle a lion, but historically this kind of fight or flight stress was more the exception, not the rule.
Today, researchers are discovering a relationship between excess stress and a host of chronic degenerative conditions that are plaguing modern humans. Some humans can antidote this type of stress with increased vagal tone or an activated parasympathetic nervous system better than others. (1)
Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. (4) Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. (1,5)
Dr. Keven Tracey, a neurosurgeon based in New York, discovered that one of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. If vagal tone is low, this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive. (1)
Dr. Tracey experimented with inserting a stimulating device into the chest of folks with chronic inflammation. The device would increase vagal tone or activate the parasympathetic nervous system. One of his subjects had a debilitating case of Rheumatoid arthritis and was sentenced to high dosages of pain killers and a cancer drug called methotrexate that would suppress her immune system for the rest of her life.
Within a few weeks of the vagal stimulation, she began walking again and started riding her bike. She reported starting ice-skating and gymnastics again. She still takes a low dose of methotrexate but, at 68, she is active once again, teaching seniors volleyball and playing with her eight grandchildren. Many of the other subjects in his trial had similar effects, suggesting that increasing vagal tone can help at least slow the degeneration and accelerate the natural healing process.
How to Increase Vagus Nerve Tone
Inserting such devices into folks with chronic stress or degeneration is a long way off, but there are many proven ways to boost one’s own parasympathetic activity and increase vagus nerve tone, such as meditation and nose breathing exercise. (1,2,3,6)
Meditation has been proven time and time again to be one of the most effective ways to increase vagal tone. When the body settles down, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes dominant. During this time of deep rest that is heightened by meditation, the vagal tone increases, which is linked to numerous health-related benefits. (1,2,3)
In our research on nose breathing, we found an increase of vagal tone during nose breathing exercise compared to mouth breathing exercise. (6) This was significant, because during exercise, vagal tone is expected to decrease. Nose breathing seems to activate the predominance of vagal receptors in the lower lobes of the lungs that mouth or shallow breathing does not access. Deep breathing during yoga may have benefits for the same reasons.