The vagus nerve has long been the subject of speculation and speculation throughout history. Ancient Greek and Roman physicians believed it helped regulate breathing and manage voice in addition to serving as a spiritual channel between body and soul.
The vagus nerve was long thought to play an essential part in producing tears; thus its name came to be used as an adjective referring to someone who wanders aimlessly around.
Only in the 19th century was its true nature gradually revealed.
Scientific studies began providing more in-depth knowledge of the functions of the vagus nerve,” according to Megan Donnelly, D.O., lead neurologist and women’s headache specialist for Novant Health.
What Is the Vagus Nerve and What Does it Do? The vagus nerve consists of two branches — left and right — which extend from your brain through neck, chest, and abdomen to help keep everything under control. This nerve forms part of our parasympathetic nervous system – our “calm down” part of brain which works together with vagus to regulate our emotions.
“Think of the vagus nerve as your go-to nerve for rest and digestion,” according to Donnelly. It lowers heart rate and blood pressure while improving digestion.
The vagus nerve is also responsible for controlling respiratory rate and several reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting.
What can happen when my vagus nerve isn’t functioning normally?
If the vagus nerve is not operating normally – also referred to as abnormal vagal tone – your health could suffer in many ways.
An overactive or too-responsive vagus nerve can lead to fainting, reduced heart rate and nausea; an underactive vagus nerve may result in rapid heart rate, decreased digestion or gastroparesis – a condition in which your stomach does not empty all the way.
Furthermore, abnormal vagal tone – when your vagus nerve isn’t functioning as expected – may result in:
Dizziness, abdominal pain, acid reflux, difficulty swallowing or speech difficulty or hoarseness and weight loss may all be symptoms of acid reflux disease; additional indicators include changes in blood pressure; Migraine attacks; Epilepsy; Anxiety can all increase as well.
Anxiety and Depression
An underactive vagus nerve can also contribute to anxiety and depression, which explains why stimulating its stimulation as part of therapy for these mental health conditions may be used as treatment.
“Currently available handheld devices provide gentle electrical pulses to the neck area.”
Autoimmune diseases could also be related to an improperly working vagus nerve; although, this could actually be the cause rather than effect of its malfunction.
“Autoimmune disease can affect nerves throughout our bodies, with vagus nerve being one of the largest and longest nerves,” according to Donnelly.
Long Covid may lead to an autoimmune response and damage the vagus nerve.
Does Icing of the Vagus Nerve Reduce Anxiety? Recent studies have demonstrated that stimulating the vagus nerve during an anxiety episode can help lower it quickly. So stimulating it during something like a panic attack may help calm the body down quickly.
To stimulate the vagus nerve, which cannot be reached directly, by exposure to freezing cold temperatures is the best way.
Sarah-Nicole Bostan, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist who is board-certified in biofeedback stated: “Cold water immersion has shown mixed results to both enhance vagal tone and increase HRV (heart rate variability),” according to her work as an author on biofeedback training courses. Parasympathetic nervous system quickly kicks in which leads to reduced heart rate resulting in grounding effects for those experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety such as racing heart rate and difficulty breathing.
Ice is an effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve. Jennifer Surak-Zammitti, LCSW is a psychotherapist and recommends it as an anxiety relief technique for her patients.
“When they feel anxious, I advise them to hold and squeeze an ice cube in their hand,” Surak-Zammitti suggested.
She advises those at risk of self-harm to use ice for protection against self-injury.
Surak-Zammitti suggested having her clients hold an ice cube to their wrists to give them something tangible in their hands, giving them relief while providing enough time to acquire new coping strategies to get out of situations that lead to self-harming behavior.
If you’re feeling anxious, something as simple as breathing cold air may help ease it.
“For an incredible calming effect,” suggested Surak-Zammitti, “open a window and allow the cold air to touch your face. You will feel relaxed instantly.”
How can you increase vagal nerve tone?
While vagal tone naturally decreases as we get older, physical activity increases vagal tone levels for higher and healthier vagal tone levels. Studies show this leads to improved vagal health overall.
“Exercise should focus not only on frequency but gradually increasing intensity, duration and type,” according to Bostan.
Deep breathing is another great way to strengthen vagal tone. A recent study demonstrated that just five minutes of slow, deep breaths reduced anxiety while simultaneously strengthening vagal tone.
Although we understand more about the vagus nerve today, many aspects remain vague – for example whether abnormal vagal tone is more prevalent among women than men.
“Overall, the relationship between gender and vagal tone is complex and further research must be conducted to better understand their interrelation,” according to Donnelly.
Moving more is always advisable; particularly as we age. And when anxiety hits us hard, remember what your mother always told you: A cold compress on your forehead really can help ease things!