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Unlock Your Calm: Simple Methods to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve and Beat Stress

For many women, menopause = stress

Stress can manifest in diverse ways, and can affect us both positively and negatively.

When it lingers as chronic or traumatic, it can significantly disrupt our overall well-being.

While meditation, nature, and mindfulness are commonly associated with stress reduction, numerous, possibly more straightforward strategies are available to support ourselves. 


Our body's response to stress involves two key systems:

  • the sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response.

  • the parasympathetic nervous system helps restore calmness, known as the rest and digest state.

Think of your body like a car with two pedals - an accelerator and a brake. Stressors push the accelerator, activating the sympathetic nervous system.

The vagus nerve, our brake, serves as the control centre of the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting the rest and digest state while counteracting the fight or flight response.


So, what exactly is the vagus nerve?

vagus nerve diagram

It's the longest cranial nerve, originating in the brainstem and extending throughout the body; it connects to vital organs like the heart, lungs, and digestive system, earning its reputation as the body's most important nerve.

This nerve plays a pivotal role in regulating the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states. Ideally, during times of stress, it ensures smooth transitions between these states, crucial for maintaining balance and resilience.


Importance of a Parasympathetic State:

In a sympathetic state, the body prioritises survival, focusing all its energy on priming our body to address the perceived threat, such as escaping a predator. This diverts energy from activities like digestion and immune regulation. While these changes are manageable in the short term, chronic stress can lead to health issues like inflammation, anxiety, and digestive problems.

Vagus Nerve and Gut Health:

Furthermore, the vagus nerve significantly influences gut health by connecting the gut and the brain through the gut-brain axis. Dysfunction in this communication channel can exacerbate gut issues like IBS and constipation.

Supporting the vagus nerve.

Improving the tone or strength of the vagus nerve is crucial. When our vagal tone is low, the nerve's signalling ability diminishes, causing a rapid shift into the sympathetic state.  This compromises our capacity to transition back into the parasympathetic recovery state, leaving us in a prolonged state of stress.

Enhancing vagal tone enhances resilience, aiding in balancing the stress response.

Heart rate variability (HRV) measures vagal tone, with higher HRV typically indicating better vagal tone. However, HRV levels can vary significantly with age and individual differences. While devices like Fitbit, watches, and the Oura ring provide HRV readings, it's essential to interpret them cautiously and avoid becoming overly fixated on numbers. While these tools offer valuable insights, they're just one piece of the puzzle in managing stress and well-being.

Improving Vagal Tone:

So, what can we do to enhance vagal tone?

breathing diagram

1. Breathing & Meditation:

Deep breathing, particularly during exhales, interrupts the stress response, lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Slow nasal breathing exercises are potent tools for improving vagal tone.

Basic techniques involve exhaling for longer durations than inhaling, which reduces heart rate and boosts parasympathetic activity.

4-7-8 breathing is one technique: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7, then exhale for 8. Start with three cycles and observe the effects.

Another option is alternate nostril breathing: block one nostril while inhaling, then switch for the exhale. Repeat for 5-10 minutes.

Meditation practices also promote vagal tone by encouraging slow, deliberate breaths.

Nasal breathing is crucial. It prompts the diaphragm to move rhythmically with each breath, creating pressure changes in the abdomen. This movement massages internal organs, stimulating nerve fibres, including those of the vagus nerve.

Incorporating breath work practices into your daily routine can significantly enhance vagal tone and overall well-being.

I regularly see clients benefit from 4-7-8. I also teach Buteyko breathing, which follows similar principles.

2. Cold Exposure:

Cold therapy has demonstrated an ability to increase both heart rate variability (HRV) and parasympathetic activity, positively impacting vagal tone.

To incorporate cold therapy into your routine, consider starting with 30-second intervals of cold water exposure at the end of your shower and gradually increasing the duration over time. For those seeking a more adventurous approach, options like cold water immersion/swimming are possibilities.

Engaging in cold water therapy, is believed to reduce the "fight or flight" response by signalling a decrease in heart rate.

I started by sticking my leg under the cold water for a few seconds. TBH, that was hideous. I now find that standing under the shower and turning the dial in a step-by-step process is much easier.

Alternatively, simply splashing your face with cold water will have a similar effect

Why not give it a try?


3. Move Your Body:

Moderate physical activity has been demonstrated to effectively stimulate vagus nerve activation. Moreover, incorporating light exercise into your routine, such as walking or yoga, can also positively affect heart rate variability (HRV). These activities not only promote overall physical health but also contribute to the enhancement of vagal tone, fostering resilience against stress.

4. Connect Socially:

Elevating positive emotions and strengthening social bonds correlate with increased vagal tone, underscoring the importance of nurturing relationships. Whether enjoying heartfelt conversations over coffee or joining virtual hangouts with loved ones, prioritising social interactions can significantly contribute to vagus nerve health.

Additionally, if you have the time, consider volunteering—it allows you to give back and fosters community involvement, which many of us may find lacking in today's world.

Come along to parkrun – two for one – you get movement in, too!

4. Singing, Humming, Massage:


Practicing activities like singing, humming, chanting, and gargling can activate the vagus nerve branches located in the muscles at the back of the throat and ear canals. The vibrations generated by these actions are thought to stimulate the vagus nerve, thereby enhancing its function.

When gargling for 30 seconds to 1 minute, direct the water to the back of your throat (without choking) rather than keeping it at the front.

While these practices may not always be embraced by everyone in your household, they provide a valuable boost to the health of your vagus nerve.


The Bottom Line

The key takeaway is that all these DIY practices are simple, safe, and can be done from the comfort of your own home

Regularly stimulating your vagus nerve supports your overall health. This calms your body and mind, helping you better navigate stressful moments and build resilience against life's challenges.

Given that menopause is often accompanied by substantial physiological stress (hormonal fluctuations) and tends to coincide with a myriad of other stressors in our lives, these practices become even more crucial.

As someone who has seen first-hand how stress impacts health, I understand the importance of managing it effectively. You could follow all the "right" wellness practices and eat nutritious foods. Still, if stress remains unchecked, its detrimental effects can rival poor dietary choices.


Remember, your emotional well-being is just as important as your physical health. Make stress management a priority to nurture your vagus nerve and overall wellness.

Start with small steps each day, and you'll notice the benefits over time. 


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