Not too long ago, I shared a post about the POTS and vagus nerve connection. I’ve been fascinated with this connection and what I learned from the two books I read on the topic. I’ve been especially intrigued by how to stimulate the vagus nerve.
But if you haven’t read that post yet, let me give a brief explanation. Basically, some doctors and researchers believe that many conditions, including POTS, can be caused, or worsened, by dysfunction of the vagus nerve. In addition, they believe that vagus nerve stimulation can help to lessen symptoms.
However, I do want to make it clear that implementing these tips is in no way promising to cure your condition. POTS is a very complex syndrome that can be caused by a variety of factors. But, based on what I know about the mechanisms of POTS, I believe that stimulating the vagus nerve can help us manage many of our POTS symptoms. So, if you’re wondering how to stimulate the vagus nerve to see these results for yourself, keep reading!
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Hum, Sing, or Gargle
Who would have thought that something as simple as humming or as fun as singing could activate the vagus nerve? Turns out, both methods can! Even chanting during meditation (“Ommmm!”) or gargling work. All of these methods involve using the muscles in the back of the throat, which are connected to the vagus nerve. Maybe this explains why it feels so good to sing along to the radio in the car?
Practice Deep Breathing
Making time each day to practice diaphragmatic breathing — or deep belly breathing — can help stimulate the vagus nerve. I recently learned that one of the biggest causes of vagus nerve dysfunction is improper breathing. So, the best thing you can do to help the vagus nerve is to start belly breathing. Even taking ten minutes each day to sit or lay still and focus on your breathing can make a difference.
Do you struggle to get the deep breathing technique down? Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. When you inhale, you should feel the hand on your belly rise. The hand on your chest should not rise. It also helps me to imagine my stomach filling up like a balloon.
Listen to Music
Not just any music, though. Here, I’m specifically talking about calming music, such as classical, spa, acoustic, or soundscape music. Personally, I keep a playlist on Spotify of all my favorite relaxing music. I also love using the Calm App to listen to soundscapes while I’m working, trying to fall asleep, or taking a bath.
Socializing and laughing stimulate the vagus nerve and can improve vagal tone. So schedule your next girls’ night or boys’ night or a family dinner. Stream comedies more often and watch funny videos on YouTube. Scroll the latest memes or Tik Toks. Read amusing books that make you laugh out loud. My thesis advisor recently published a novel called How Not to Drown, and the characters made me smile and laugh more than any book I’ve read in a long time.
I think pairing meditating and deep breathing practice is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. And if you want to add some calming music in the background, even better! Not to keep namedropping the Calm App (I’m not affiliated with them–just love the app!), but this app has been pivotal in helping me improve meditating. Honestly, I used to suck at it. Well, I still suck at it, but since starting the guided meditations on the app, I now suck less.
But even more important? Now, I can notice how different I feel after finishing a 10-minute meditation. I feel more centered, focused, grateful, and less anxious. And the more I practice each day, the longer these feelings last after each meditation session.
Activate the Gag Reflex
Okay, I’ll admit, this one is a more unpleasant and gross option, but it does work! When you gag, you’re activating the throat muscles that are connected to the vagus nerve. In fact, doctors use the gag reflex as a way to tell if your vagus nerve is working optimally. If the reflex is missing or weak, it could signal vagus nerve dysfunction. But you don’t need to make yourself gag all day. Simply do it, say, while brushing your teeth, in addition to the other tips on this page.
You can improve vagal tone by making exercise a part of your regular routine. For POTSies, though, exercise can be challenging. So, do what you can to get your body moving. If you’re new to exercise, try cycling for a few minutes at a time on a recumbent bike or a mini portable bike, like the Sunny Health & Fitness Bike Pedal Exerciser. You can also use this model as an arm ergometer. Or, try one of my POTS-friendly workouts, like my POTS chair cardio routine. If you’ve already built up exercise tolerance, keep up with your workout schedule!
Increase Your Cold Exposure
As someone who hates being cold, you could probably guess how I feel about this one. But personal feelings aside, cold exposure and performing something called the diving reflex can instantly activate the vagus nerve.
The diving reflex essentially involves submerging your face in cold water and holding your breath. The easiest way to do this is to let cold water run down your face at the end of your showers. Or, you can fill a bowl with ice-cold water and submerge your face in it. Research shows that within the first minutes of submersion, parasympathetic nervous system activity—which, is responsible for calming our bodies—significantly increases.
Other ways to get cold exposure include placing an ice wrap on the back of your head. Even holding ice cubes in your hands or drinking ice water can work.
As the longest nerve in the body that connects the gut and the brain, the vagus nerve is important to gut-brain communication. And healthy gut bacteria, aided by taking probiotics, has been shown to improve this communication. So, taking a probiotic daily can help in stimulating the vagus nerve. My go-to is Metagenics UltraFlora Integrity probiotics. Or, you can eat probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, kombucha, and kefir.
Get Out In Nature
I love the outdoors. For me, no place is more peaceful. The next time you feel stressed or experience a POTS flare, take some time and spend it outdoors. Take your lunch to a local park. If your mobility allows it, find a trail and go walk in the woods or around a lake. Or maybe just find a peaceful place to read a book or spend time on your hobby–maybe somewhere near water or another picturesque location. You choose!
Adopt Good Sleeping Habits
You can also stimulate the vagus nerve by getting quality sleep every night. And the way in which you sleep may also have an effect on vagal tone. According to author and doctor Navaz Habib, sleeping on the right side is beneficial to the vagus nerve. This is because much of the vagus nerve goes alongside the right side of the neck and just sleeping on that side can activate it.
Do Yoga or Pilates
I do not want to be that person that tells someone with a chronic illness, “Have you tried yoga?” So I won’t ask that here. Instead, I will simply offer it as an alternative to try if you struggle with meditating or deep breathing but enjoy exercise. Yoga and Pilates focus heavily on the breath, which can help you practice awareness of your breathing. This awareness can aid in that belly breathing technique I mentioned earlier. Yoga and Pilates can also allow you time to pause and reflect or practice gratitude.
Trying some—or all—of these tips can help activate the vagus nerve. And the more you can stimulate the vagus nerve, the more you may feel symptom relief from many chronic conditions, including POTS, gastroparesis, depression and anxiety, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Still eager to learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve further? Check out the book Activate Your Vagus Nerve by Navaz Habib for even more ideas and to learn the fascinating biology of the vagus nerve.
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