Dr. Nisha Manikantan
Dr. Nisha Manikantan

Studies show that one of the most important nerves in the body is the vagus nerve which arises directly from the brain and reaches all major body organs. Recently, doctors have started treating major diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and epilepsy by stimulating this nerve with pacemakers. But are there inexpensive alternatives to stimulate it?

What is the Vagus nerve?

Vagus nerve is a bunch of nerve fibres that arise from the brain to the abdomen and then branching off to important organs in the body – the brain, gut, heart, liver, pancreas, kidney, spleen, lungs, reproductive organs and the tongue. It controls all involuntary body processes like digestion and heartbeat, breathing, circulation.

What can the Vagus nerve influence?

When the vagus nerve is not able to perform to the best of its ability, the body and mind become susceptible to a range of diseases like depression, anxiety, digestive disorders, kidney malfunction, an imbalance in blood glucose and even infertility. The nerve influences a sense of connectedness, mental and physical well-being and even altruistic behaviour.

How does one improve Vagal tone?

Vagal tone is the level of activity of vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is not working optimally, the vagal tone is said to be less. Doctors have started stimulating the vagus nerve with electric impulses of a pacemaker and increase vagal tone in patients. However, there are natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Mind-body doctors have published multiple studies indicating a key role of deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques in stimulating the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  These techniques which have originated from India are now widely accepted across the western world too for its ability to maintain physiological balance in the human body.

Research has shown that the practice of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, a powerful breathing technique has similar effects as that of an activated Vagus Nerve. Regular practice of Sudarshan Kriya has shown to relieve depression in over 67% of a study’s participants, decreased the release of the stress hormone, Cortisol by 56%, reduced anxiety in 71% of people with whom even psychotherapy and medication failed. It improves deep sleep and well-being hormones.

The technique has helped people from all walks of life live a healthier and happier life. So impactful has been the technique that its regular practice has helped war veterans in the United States overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and war victims in Syria and Jordan overcome depression.

Apart from practising breathing techniques like Sudarshan Kriya, there are a few other practices that stimulate the Vagus nerve:

  1. Potassium-rich diet and foods that stimulate the release of dopamine such as nuts like almonds, banana, curd, spinach, avocado, coconut water, potato and sweet potato.
  2. Pranayam (Yogic breathing exercise) like Nadi-Shodhan Pranayam (Alternate Nostril breathing) or Ujjayi Breathing (Diaphragmatic breathing) and the Bhastrika (Bellow’s Breath.)
  3. Yoga
  4. Chanting – Recent research at a premier institute in the country has shown a clear improvement in the general cheerfulness and clarity of mind after chanting/ listening to mantras.
  5. Laughter
  6. Splashing your face with cold water

These inexpensive alternatives can go a long way in stimulating the vagus nerve and keeping you healthy!

(The writer is a wellness expert and Director of Sri Sri Ayurveda)