The Vagus Nerve influences a lot: can it improve your mental state too?

The vagus nerve has become an object of curiosity and appeal in recent years, particularly on social media. The vagal nerve fibres, which run from the brain to the abdomen, have been touted by many content creators as the biological hack to reducing anxiety, regulating the nervous system and helping the body to relax- all a major win in our post-covid lives. TikTok videos with the hashtag “#vagusnerve” have been viewed more than 64 million times, with the majority featuring ‘hacks’ to tone or reset the vagus nerve.

Researched as having the ability to aid treatment-resistant mental health disorders through electrode activation, the vagus nerve is unsurprisingly a key that many are banking on. But are there other ways to activate the vagus nerve? Who would benefit most from doing so? And what exactly is the vagus nerve, anyway? Here’s a look at what we know so far.

The term “vagus nerve”- shorthand for thousands of fibres- is organised into two bundles that run from the brain stem down through each side of the neck and into the torso, branching outward to touch our internal organs, said Dr. Kevin J. Tracey, a neurosurgeon and president of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, Northwell Health’s research centre in New York.

Picture the basic structures of a tree, whose limbs interact with nearly every organ system in the body. (The word “vagus” means “wandering” in Latin.)

The vagus nerve collects information about how the organs are functioning as well as sends information from the brain stem back to the body, helping to control digestion, heart rate, voice, mood and, unsurprisingly, the immune system.

For those reasons, the vagus nerve — the longest of the 12 cranial nerves — is sometimes referred to as an “information superhighway.”

The vagus is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Unlike the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the body’s “fight or flight” response, the parasympathetic branch helps us rest, digest and calm down.

So, on that note right there, how do we activate this holy grail of benefits?

Well, there’s a couple ways. 

You can restore self-regulating vagal function through grounding and mindfulness as well as self-biofeedback such as breathwork. Frontiers in Psychiatry says, “the vagal tone is correlated with capacity to regulate stress responses and can be influenced by breathing, its increase through meditation and yoga likely contribute to resilience and the mitigation of mood and anxiety symptoms.” 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Glenn Doyle puts it this way: “The vagus nerve is deeply plugged into our heart, our guts, and our voice. Whenever we turn inward to check in with our true feelings; to check in with our intuitive wisdom; or to find our true expressiveness, we're lighting up the vagus nerve.”

Another more - shocking - method is labelled the ‘diving reflex’. To stimulate the diving reflex, you need cold exposure. You can splash cold water on your face or put ice cubes in a Ziploc bag against it. According to Dr. Arielle Schwartz, “The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body.” 

Morale of the story: optimal vagus nerve activity is achieved through showing compassion to your body. It’s your secret weapon to a better you.