No matter how you choose to get and stay fit, chances are good that you want to optimize that method to the best of your ability. While harder, longer workouts and supplements can help, recent research has shown that activating your parasympathetic nervous system is a great way to enhance your performance. Here’s everything you need to know about vagus nerve activation.
Two Sides to the Nervous System
Your nervous system consists of your brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Your brain sends messages through your spinal cord to various nerves throughout your body, which allows you to contract a muscle on demand, blink your eyes, or even flinch in the presence of pain. Your nervous system is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
- Sympathetic – This part of your nervous system is responsible for creating the “fight-or-flight” response. It sends signals to your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, which enhances your overall performance very briefly, but leaves you feeling drained immediately afterward.
- Parasympathetic – The other side of your nervous system does the exact opposite of the sympathetic system. It takes you into what some call “rest-and-digest” mode, which allows both your body and mind to relax deeply.
Science has proven time and again that proper relaxation can lower your blood pressure, improve your immune system, lower your heart rate, and even slow your breathing. If you’re an athlete or fitness enthusiast, you know it’s important to rest certain muscle groups to allow them to recover fully, too. That’s where vagus nerve activation comes into play.
What the Vagus Nerve Does
The vagus nerve is a part of the peripheral nervous system, which consists of nerves that fan out through your body. It’s part of a group of nerves called cranial nerves; these nerves exit directly from your brain rather than from your spine. This one, specifically, is the 10th cranial nerve, and it exits directly from your medulla, which is part of your brain stem. Activating your vagus nerve is vital for improving the function of your parasympathetic nervous system, and this activation also helps to shut down the sympathetic nervous system.
Vagus Nerve Activation at Home
Although some medical professionals offer stimulation procedures that involve sending very mild electrical shocks through the nerve, vagus nerve activation can also be achieved at home. There are several simple activities that have been shown to improve the function of the vagus nerve.
- Deep, Mindful Breathing – Sitting quietly while taking deep breaths is a great way to activate your vagus nerve. While breathing, focus on your ribs as they move in and out and actively work to achieve a deep state of relaxation.
- Cold Water – A few studies have shown that immersing your face in cold water for three minutes provides outstanding stimulus. Place your face in a large basin, and when you need to take a breath, turn your head to the side. Alternate sides for each breath.
- Inversion – There is evidence to suggest that incorporating inversion into your yoga routine is a great choice for vagus nerve stimulation.
- Chanting, Humming, or Singing – Monks often chant in low tones to help them achieve a state of relaxation, and science has shown they’ve been right all along. Humming, chanting, or singing in resonant tones can activate the vagus nerve.
- Qigong – Qigong is an ancient Eastern system of healthcare that is still used widely throughout that part of the world. It combines deep breathing, posturing, and focused intention.
For most people, the sympathetic nervous system remains active for most of their waking hours, which leads to stress, weight gain, and poor health. Vagus nerve activation can combat this by allowing your body to fully relax, which can help speed post-workout recovery, cut back on stress hormones like cortisol, reduce inflammation, and even improve your sleep quality.