Understanding The Vagus Nerve: 

The vagus nerve is a central nerve that controls the parasympathetic nervous system, is connected to the brain-gut axis, and is critical to bodily function. It’s long held a role in conventional medical practice. It used to be a common procedure to cut the vagus nerve to treat peptic ulcer disease, as cutting it would reduce production of peptic acid. 

Today the most common medical treatment involving the vagus nerve is stimulating it with a electronic device (like a pacemaker) to help treat epilepsy, especially for patients that medication doesn’t 100% manage the condition. 

Verywell Health describes the vagus nerve as: the vagus nerve helps control several muscles of the throat and of the voicebox. It plays a major role in regulating the heart rate and keeping the gastrointestinal tract in working order. The vagus nerves also carry sensory information from the internal organs back to the brain.

For a long time, some psychologists and natural health practitioners have supported vagus nerve simulation to help with anxiety. The vagus nerve responds rapidly to sudden temperature change, so it’s become the most popular DIY vagus nerve stimulation is simply ice water. A sudden cold dip especially combined with breathing or even a minute of intense aerobic exercise can act as a “ctrl-alt-del” total resent for the nervous system, through the vagus nerve. 

The idea of a cold shower or cold plunge for a nervous system has been used in spas or Scandinavian saunas for hundreds of years. Wim Hoff and other holistic practitioners have advocated for ice baths combined with deep belly breathing and/or percussion breath (rapid, light breaths from the belly) for stress relief. 

Today an easier at-home style of vagus nerve stimulation is trending, with TikTok influencers and AOC posting a video. It’s not unlike the Ice Bucket Challenge, except now it’s just holding your face in a bowl of ice water for 30 seconds (which is actually a long time) for personal stress management. This is enough for the vagus nerve to signal blood flow from non-essential to essential organs, slow the heart rate. 

Other related effects from a cold dose is a shown increase in nonadrenal and cortisol levels (explaining why a cold plunge is invigorating). Recovering from the stressful event (ice), also shows an increase in dopamine which is how it can feel like a “high”. As the vagus nerve helps the body switch from a sympathetic to parasympathetic (flight or fight to rest, digest) it’s normal to experience a deep relaxation that follows a stressful event. 

According to Cleaveland Clinic, here are issues that vagus nerve stimulation can help with: 

  • Minimize seizures in those with epilepsy.
  • Treat depression.
  • Regulate your emotions.
  • Reduce blood pressure.
  • Lower your heart rate.
  • Reduce inflammation.
  • Treat migraines and cluster headaches.

What else can stimulate the vagus nerve? 

Reflexology and massage have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. Invigorating exercise will give the nervous system “good stress” that will stimulate the vagus nerve like ice water. Mediation has also been shown to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Interestingly, there’s mixed results but music and singing and thought to have a connection as well. The vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords. When a yoga class opens or closes with a long “om” there is likely a connection to chanting, the vagus nerve, meditation, and accessing deeper calm sensation.