Updated: Apr 7
What if I told you there was a really simple way to get a cognitive advantage when you really need to bring your A-game? New research shows that there is one very important nerve in the body that not only pumps the brakes on stress but also activate the thinking brain, too!
Research shows that the vagus nerve may be your secret superpower - both physically and mentally. The vagus nerve is the CEO of the parasympathetic nervous system - a.k.a as the “rest and digest” or "chill out" system. When we activate the vagus nerve, we can put the sympathetic nervous system - a.k.a. the "OMG/hair on fire/do something" system - on pause along with the stress hormones it releases.
Although we refer to the vagus nerve as singular, it's actually a pair of nerves that emerge from the left and right side of the medulla oblongata portion of the brain stem. The nerve gets its name from the Latin word for wandering, from the way it “wanders” like a vagabond, sending out sensory fibers from your brainstem to your entire body.
The longest of the cranial nerves, the vagus nerve controls your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system - and a vast range of crucial communication functions and sensory impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating serious, incurable diseases.
Here are six ways to tap into the power of the vagus nerve and put your "thinking brain" in charge:
Take a Breath: Slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting a feeling of calm and relaxation. In less than a few minutes, intentional breathing can engage the parasympathetic nervous system as well as your thinking brain.
Chill Out: Literally. Exposure to cold temperatures, such as taking cold showers or immersing yourself in cold water, can activate the vagus nerve and increase its activity.
Meditate: Meditation has been shown to increase vagal tone, which is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help promote relaxation and reduce stress.
Get Moving: Regular exercise can improve vagal tone, leading to better regulation of the body's functions. Exercises that involve rhythmic movement, such as running, swimming, or cycling, can be especially effective. But even a short walk around the block can get you back in the game.
Laugh and Sing: Laughter is the best medicine as it stimulates 5 different regions of the brain including the prefrontal cortex. Laughing also releases the happy chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Singing can stimulate the vagus nerve through the vibration of the vocal cords.
Treat Yourself to a Massage: Gentle massage can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. This can be especially effective when focused on the neck, which is where the vagus nerve is most accessible. Massages also stimulate the production of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins - a neurotransmitter cocktail that decreases anxiety and increases one's sense of well-being.