What if you could relax more easily, decrease anxiety, symptoms of depression, fall asleep easily, improve the quality of your sleep, even signal increased anti-inflammatory and self-regulatory body responses at will? We can.

And...bonus! It’s free and easy to do. 

We almost don’t have to think about it to get the benefits.

While scientific research and verification are still underway, it might be worth attempting to activate the vagus nerve regularly with simple breathing exercises in order to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This will begin to take us into a “rest and digest” mode, and out of the sympathetic system’s “fight, flight or freeze”.

Chances are good you’re more familiar with your sympathetic nervous system. This system is the one that boosts the body’s heart rate, directs blood flow to key systems and organs, and increases alertness, via rapid hormone release. All of this is in order to prepare the body for the fight, flight, or freeze response in a dangerous or stressful situation. 

Wired, but tired

Feeling wired-but-tired may be an indicator that your sympathetic nervous system is working harder than it needs to, especially if you’ve got that feeling in non-stressful, non-emergency situations. Perhaps you’ve felt it while watching television, or while trying to fall asleep in the comfort and safety of your home. Or maybe you find it challenging to rest or get to a state of relaxation in general.

You’re not alone

Dr. Deepak Chopra, notes that “Our society is on sympatheic overdrive.” Meaning, many of us are in a constant or chronic state of high alert. What else does this mean for our bodies to be in an almost constant state of emergency alert? 

It increases our risks for high blood pressure, inflammation throughout the body, heart disease, cardiac arrhythmias. Getting out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic system takes little effort, and we’re all halfway there by breathing all the time anyway. With a tiny bit of modification, we may reap the benefits of improved health and wellbeing, reduce our risks for heart disease, symptoms of anxiety, and depression.

Fun facts about the vagus nerve

Which is the longest nerve in your body, with a path to almost every organ? It’s the 10th cranial nerve in the body and it wanders from above the mid-brain throughout your body, all the way down to your colon: the vagus nerve. Ta-da!

As a part of the parasympathetic nervous system in our bodies, the vagus nerve influences lung, heart, gut, and diaphragm activity, not to mention facial expressions, speaking and swallowing functions. And it’s possible to activate, support, and bring balance into our bodies regularly by engaging and activating the vagus nerve.

Engaging your vagus nerve

Breathing slowly and deeply is the path to engaging the vagus nerve and improving what’s known as vagal tone

Breathing in and out through your nose, inhaling and exhaling to the count of 4. Spend 2-ish minutes and breathe 10 breaths of inhale and exhale at the count of 4 for each, and see how you feel.

Play with it. Perhaps you can slow your number of inhales and exhales per minute even more by inhaling to a count of 5 and then exhaling to a count of 6 or 8 for another series of 10 breaths.

What does this do? 

It provides a balancing effect on your nervous system. When you practice this type of breathing, and other non-invasive methods to activate your vagus nerve, improve your heart rate variability (HRV), so your body can relax faster and easier after a period of stress. This breathing exercise can also help you to relax and fall asleep.

Vagus nerve stimulation

There are medical procedures and devices that have been adopted to stimulate the vagus nerve in order to treat epilepsy and mental health including depression. There was a study done in 2016 for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis as well. 

Ongoing research is currently underway for inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, as well as rapid cycling bipolar and anxiety disorders.

More support, not less

How to incorporate a new practice that may ease menopause symptoms, and even help to decrease inflammation, reduce the risk of heart disease? Maybe all you need are a few suggestions to prompt you to engage your parasympathetic nervous system during the day? You could begin to breathe slowly and deeply when you: 

  • Unlock your mobile phone
  • Open the fridge or pantry
  • Open your email
  • Hear a bell, chime, or ding of any kind
  • Stop at a stoplight in your car, or at every stop on the bus route
  • Hear a reminder you’ve set for yourself for the purpose

Where else, and what else, might prompt you to take a more conscious, deeper breath?

But wait, there’s more

Additional ways to engage your vagus nerve and your parasympathetic nervous system:

  • Cold water — stimulus splashing cold water on your face can also stimulate your vagus nerve.
  • Singing, chanting, or using mantras — turn up the volume in your car
  • Meditation an easy access point to slow and deepen your breathing, and to also quiet your mind
  • Positive social interaction spending time with people who inspire feelings of warmth, love, and compassion
  • Laughter it feels great, is fun, and promotes general well being
  • Exercise another excellent reason to move and stay active
  • Massage or reflexology relaxing and restorative, you can have a professional massage, or practice gentle massage on yourself

Coaching and additional support may be of help as you navigate through your menopause transition. Make a simple start by slowing and deepening your breathing. The hardest thing about this suggestion may be remembering to do it. 

What did you discover when you tried to engage your parasympathetic nervous system via your vagus nerve? We’d love to hear what you’ve experienced in our Community forums. Join, and share.