Vagus Nerve Massage

Vagus Nerve Massage: How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Anxiety, Depression, Mood, Gut-Hormone Connection, Mood & Emotions, Wellbeing Leave a Comment

Incorporating vagus nerve massage and other vagus nerve stimulation techniques into your daily routine can be a valuable strategy for enhancing your ability to cope with stress, and helps you unlock a multitude of other benefits for your body, mind, and hormones.

Benefits of vagus nerve massage can include:

  • Promotes relaxation and reduces stress
  • Enhances parasympathetic nervous system activity
  • May improve digestion and nutrient absorption
  • May reduce inflammation and pain throughout the body
  • Supports healthy heart function and blood pressure
  • Boosts mood and mental well-being
  • Enhances immune system function
  • Alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Enhances overall sense of well-being

Within our bodies, hidden beneath layers of muscle and bone, lies a pathway known as the vagus nerve — an intricate neural highway that winds its way from our brainstem to the far reaches of our abdomen, touching nearly every major organ along the way.

The vagus nerve is a vital link between mind and body, regulating everything from heart rate and digestion to mood and immune function.

In this article, learn all about how to incorporate vagus nerve massage and other “vagal tone” practices into your weekly routine to enhance your microbiome-gut-brain axis, hormonal balance, and more.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve, known as the “great wandering protector,” is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It extends from the brainstem to organs such as the heart, lungs, digestive tract, and more.

This nerve connects the central nervous and enteric nervous systems (a mesh-like system of neurons that tells the gastrointestinal tract what to do). Vagus nerve activity plays a vital role in regulating essential bodily functions, such as your mood, heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and pain tolerance.

Why Does the Vagus Nerve Matter to Your Health?

Research has shown that in certain disease states, decreased heart rate variability (HRV) and decreased vagus nerve activity are associated with increased morbidity and mortality. HRV is the variation of time between heart beats, which a higher HRV score being one marker of health.

While we often hear about the vagus nerve's association with relaxation and managing your body's stress response, its roles extend beyond this.

Overall, the vagus nerve acts as an important communication pathway between the brain and organs, helping to maintain balance and coordination within the body's internal systems.

It's a key player in:

  • The body's response to stress
  • Optimal digestion
  • Emotional regulation
  • Mental health
  • Cognitive function
  • Immune response
  • Blood pressure and cardiovascular health

According to Dr. Navaz Habib, author of Upgrade Your Vagus Nerve, the vagus nerve is a crucial component of both the parasympathetic nervous system and the microbiome-gut-brain axis.

Because of its far-reaching roles, Dr. Habib considers vagus nerve dysfunction to be “a major missing piece in dealing with chronic health concerns, such as anxiety and depression.” He adds, “By activating the vagus nerve, you can optimize your productivity, focus, and energy levels.”

Here's more about how the vagus nerve helps to maintain your overall well-being.

Promotes Feelings of Calmness

Stimulation of the vagus nerve can promote feelings of calmness, reduce anxiety, and improve emotional resilience. It contributes to emotional regulation and normal stress responses by connecting the brain with visceral organs and influencing neurotransmitter activity.

Influences Heart Rate

When you’re stressed or stimulated and your heart is pounding, the vagus nerve helps regulate your heart rate by influencing the sinoatrial node, the heart's built-in pacemaker. When stimulated, the vagus nerve can slow down your heart rate, promoting relaxation and reducing a “racing heart” caused by stress.

Helps Regulate the Autonomic Nervous System

As part of the autonomic nervous system, the vagus nerve helps maintain homeostasis (or autonomic balance) by optimizing sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) activities.

It promotes relaxation, digestion, and other essential bodily functions during periods of rest and recovery. When you're under stress, activating the vagus nerve can help return you to a calmer, more balanced state, mitigating the negative effects of elevated cortisol levels and chronic stress.

Facilitates Digestion and Gut Function

The vagus nerve helps control the movement of food through the digestive tract, stimulating gastric acid secretion and facilitating the release of digestive enzymes. It also communicates sensory information from the gut to the brain, contributing to feelings of satiety and regulating appetite.

Manages Breath Rate (respiration)

You breathe rapidly when you’re in fight or flight response. The vagus nerve helps bring you back to a restful state by communicating with the muscles involved in breathing, including the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. It helps regulate breathing patterns to ensure optimal blood oxygenation and carbon dioxide removal.

Benefits of Vagus Nerve Massage

Vagus nerve stimulation (or VNS) refers to any technique that stimulates the vagus nerve, including manual techniques such as massages or electrical stimulation.

Studies suggest that vagus nerve massage techniques can have a positive impact on “vagal tone,” which refers to the activity and responsiveness of the vagus nerve and the ability to handle stress. It is a simple and easy way to support vagal nerve function.

Specialized massages may improve various aspects of health by enhancing vagal tone, including stress resilience, gut function, hormone production, and immune defenses.

Massaging the vagus verve can offer these potential benefits:

1. Reduces Stress and Anxiety

By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's “rest and digest” response, vagus nerve stimulation helps counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the “fight or flight” response.

Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to decrease cortisol levels, promoting a reduction in stress and anxiety. This reduction in cortisol levels can lead to improved mood, better sleep, and reduced feelings of stress and tension. 

It's for these reasons that massaging the vagus nerve is currently being explored as a treatment therapy for anxiety disorders.

2. May Help Improve Gut Health

Vagus nerve stimulation plays a crucial role in gut health. The vagus nerve is a major player in the gut-brain axis, facilitating biochemical and physical communication between the brain and the digestive system.

It connects the brain to the digestive system, influencing digestive processes such as gastric motility (movement of food through the intestines), secretion of digestive enzymes, and gut-brain communication.

Vagus nerve stimulation is thought to help reduce inflammation in the gut and may help manage issues like constipation. By supporting normal digestion and helping to eliminate waste, it may help prevent gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut microbes), support nutrient absorption, and promote an overall balanced and healthy microbiome.

It may also help alleviate symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

3. Supports Hormonal Balance

By promoting a healthy gut and immune system, vagus nerve activation supports hormonal balance. Gut health is essential to brain health, while the brain (specifically the hypothalamus and pituitary gland) sends signals to the gut that help coordinate hormone production.

The vagus nerve communicates with the hypothalamus, a key brain region involved in hormone regulation and one component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

Due to the gut-hormone connection, your gut directly impacts estrogen metabolism and may help eliminate environmental toxins that can contribute to elevated estrogen symptoms and conditions.

Your gut, responsible for the absorption of essential nutrients and the building block for hormones, assists in the production of reproductive hormones like progesterone and thyroid hormones. Supporting a healthy gut is one of many practices that may help prevent issues like HPA dysregulation, low progesterone, and other issues of hormone imbalances.

By enhancing vagal tone, performing a vagus nerve massage may help alleviate symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, such as stress, anxiety, mood swings, and brain fog.

You can learn more about how to reduce stress to balance hormones in this article.

4. Supports Immune Function and Inflammation

Because vagus nerve massage can help manage stress and maintain gut health, it may help support your immune system, too. Your gut houses roughly 70 to 80% of your immune system, and an unhealthy gut environment can contribute to inflammation, as well as related issues like blood sugar dysregulation and autoimmune conditions.

Additionally, the vagus nerve possesses anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, so stimulating it can help reduce pain and discomfort, such as from conditions like migraines, arthritis, diabetes, and fibromyalgia.

Vagus nerve massage may be beneficial in supporting those with inflammatory conditions, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes. 

5. May Enhance Brain Function and Mental Health

Optimal vagal tone is associated with improved cognitive function, emotional resilience, and stress management. Stimulation techniques such as massage may help improve mental performance, reduce feelings of anxiousness and sadness, and promote a sense of calm and well-being.

In general, massages can help to reduce levels of cortisol (a primary stress hormone) and increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a key hormone in promoting feelings of happiness and a positive mood, and adequate serotonin in the brain is important in regulating stress and fear responses.

Additionally, numerous clinical studies have shown that pro-inflammatory cytokines are involved in the development of depression. This is why acute and chronic infections are a risk factor for developing depression. Because the vagus nerve has the ability to regulate the neuro-endocrine-immune axis, there are now FDA approved devices being used to treat those with depression.

How to Massage the Vagus Nerve

Massaging the vagus nerve involves gentle techniques aimed at stimulating this crucial pathway, which runs down the center of the body from the head through the neck and into the abdomen.

The simplest way to do a vagus nerve massage is to apply gentle pressure with your hands to specific areas of the body, such as the neck, throat, and abdomen, where the vagus nerve is accessible. Do this while practicing deep breathing to further promote relaxation and activate the vagus nerve's calming effects.

Here's how to massage the vagus nerve:

1. Locate the Vagus Nerve

First, find a comfortable seated or lying position where you can sit or lie down and focus on your breathing.

The vagus nerve is accessible in several areas of the body, including the, ears, neck and abdomen. To perform a vagus nerve massage, start by locating the vagus nerve's primary pathway, which runs along the sides of the neck, behind the ears, and down towards the chest and abdomen.

Start by pressing softly behind the earlobes or the sides of the neck, then just below the jawline, then on the upper chest, and then on the abdomen.

Massage in a downward motion, moving from the ears towards the collarbone. Repeat the whole cycle again or focus on one area if it feels good.

2. Apply Gentle Pressure

Using your fingertips or the palm of your hand, apply gentle pressure to the areas where the vagus nerve is located. Begin at the base of the skull and move down towards the sides of the neck, applying light pressure in a circular or stroking motion.

3. Focus on Relaxation

As you massage the vagus nerve, focus on relaxation and deep breathing. Take slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth to enhance the calming effects of the massage and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Allow your belly to rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale. Visualize tension and stress melting away with each breath.

4. Do This for Several Minutes Daily and Repeat Regularly

For the greatest benefits, make it a regular part of your self-care routine to experience the full benefits of vagus nerve massage.

Aim to massage the vagus nerve for a few minutes each day or as needed to unwind when you're feeling tense or anxious. You can repeat the process several times throughout the day, such as in the morning to help set a calm and focused tone for the day or in the evening to prepare for restful sleep.

Listen to your body while you're doing this exercise. Pay attention to how your body responds to the massage and adjust the pressure and duration accordingly. If you experience any discomfort or pain, ease off on the pressure or try a different area.

Auricular Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Another easy way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through a massage of the ears.

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Beyond massage, several other practices can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote its optimal functioning. These include:

  • Eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly by doing moderate physical activity
  • Gargling
  • Singing
  • Performing breathwork and breathing exercises
  • Cold therapy

Let's look closer at ways to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants can support vagal tone and overall health. Incorporating fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut can also promote gut health, which is closely linked to vagus nerve function.

Foods to support the vagus nerve include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, omega-3s possess anti-inflammatory effects and have been found to contribute to a healthy nervous system and cardiovascular system. You can also obtain omega-3s from my Omega Plus formula, which is a concentrated fish oil supplement containing therapeutic amounts of EPA and DHA omega-3s.
  • Leafy greens: Rich in vitamins and minerals, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard provide nutrients such as magnesium, which supports nerve function, helps relax muscles, and can boost your ability to cope with stress.
  • Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are packed with antioxidants and vitamin C, which can help reduce oxidative stress that can impact the brain and nerves.
  • Fermented probiotic foods: Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi support gut health and contribute to a healthy microbiome, which is closely linked to vagus nerve function. To further support a healthy gut environment and your gut-brain axis, consider taking Women's Probiotics capsules, which contain a powerful blend of probiotics, prebiotics, and antioxidants to support overall gut health.
  • Prebiotic foods: Foods rich in prebiotic fibers, such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and bananas, nourish beneficial gut bacteria and support gut-brain communication via the vagus nerve.
  • Healthy fats: Avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil provide healthy fats that support brain health, nerve function, and gut health.
  • Bone broth: A nutrient-dense food containing collagen, gelatin, and amino acids, bone broth supports gut health, reduces inflammation, and provides essential nutrients for nerve repair and function.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are rich in magnesium, zinc, and vitamin E, which support nerve function.
  • Herbs and spices: Turmeric, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that support gut health and overall nervous system function.
  • Green tea: Green tea contains polyphenols and catechins with neuroprotective properties.

Exercise

Regular physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, or swimming, can enhance vagal tone and improve cardiovascular health.

These activities increase heart rate variability (HRV), which is a measure of the variation in time intervals between heartbeats. Higher HRV is associated with better vagus nerve function and overall health.

Additionally, yoga, tai chi, and qigong incorporate deep breathing techniques and gentle movements that can activate the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and stress reduction.

Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.

Regular Sleep Schedule

Dr. Habib states that “circadian biology alignment” is important for maintaining normal functioning of the vagus nerve. This refers to a regular sleep schedule, meaning one in which you go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time each day.

Sleep is the time when the brain cleans up cellular waste, repairs, and regenerates. Getting enough sleep is essential for healthy hormone production, while poor-quality sleep can increase stress hormones, which has negative downstream effects on thyroid and sex hormones.

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible throughout the week, including on weekends or your days off from work. Aim to get between seven to nine hours of sleep each night to support your nervous system.

If you struggle to fall or stay asleep, try strategies like meditation, warm showers before bed, sleeping in a dark, cool room with white noise, limiting screen time before bed, and taking sleep supplements, including melatonin and others like ashwagandha, magnesium, L-theanine, valerian, and taurine.

You'll find these ingredients and others in my Adrenal Calm capsules, which can be taken an hour before bed to help you sleep more easily.

Gargling and Singing

Simple practices like gargling with water or singing loudly can stimulate the muscles in the throat and activate the vagus nerve. This simple practice can help you experience the effects of vagus nerve stimulation with minimal effort.

Singing involves controlled breathing and vocalization, which can increase heart rate variability and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Gargling, especially with cold water, stimulates the muscles in the back of the throat, which are innervated by the vagus nerve.

Try incorporating these practices into your day for several minutes at a time, such as when showering, cleaning around the house, etc.

Breath Work

Deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or alternate nostril breathing, can activate the relaxation response and stimulate the vagus nerve, helping to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.

To engage in breathwork for vagus nerve stimulation, begin by finding a comfortable seated or lying position. Close your eyes and focus on your breath, taking slow, deep inhales through the nose and exhaling fully through the mouth. Aim to extend the exhalation slightly longer than the inhalation, as this can enhance the calming effects of the breath.

As you breathe, visualize the breath traveling down into your belly, expanding the diaphragm (below your lungs) like a balloon that's inflated, which engages the vagus nerve.

Practice deep, rhythmic breathing for several minutes each day (or as long as 20 minutes if you have the time), allowing yourself to relax fully into each breath. You can do this while meditating for extra stress-relieving benefits.

Cold Therapy

Cold exposure, such as taking cold showers or immersing yourself in cold water, can stimulate the vagus nerve's parasympathetic response.

When the body is exposed to cold, it triggers a physiological cardio-vagal response that increases vagal tone. This can lead to improved mood, reduced inflammation, and enhanced stress resilience.

Start with brief exposures, such as 30 seconds in a cold shower or cold plunge, and gradually increase the duration as tolerated, up to two to three minutes.

Stress Management

In addition to the tools above, take other steps to keep stress in check in order to support your nervous system, such as:

  • Movement and exercise
  • Spending time with friends and loved ones and gaining support by being a part of a community
  • Mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude practices
  • Acupuncture, massage, and other bodywork
  • Therapy
  • Time in nature
  • Setting boundaries and saying “no”

Key Takeaways on Vagus Nerve Massage Benefits

By promoting vagal tone, massage and other vagus nerve stimulation techniques can positively impact hormone balance, digestive and gut function, cognitive health, and more. You can massage your vagus nerve using your fingers by applying gentle pressure down your neck and abdomen.

In addition to direct massage, try exploring other techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve and engage the muscles and tissues connected to it, such as deep breathing, humming, singing, or gargling.

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.