If you’re like most us, you’ve been put through the wringer by challenges that have cropped up when you’re least expecting them. And all that stress takes a toll on the extremely long nerve that makes a connection between your internal organs and your brain, weakening it. A weakened vagus nerve, in turn, can lead to chronic tiredness, depression, trouble handling stress and bouts of severe anxiety. The good news: Strengthening your vagus nerve can be as easy as splashing some cold water on her face — really. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that originate in the brain. The name “vagus” comes from the Latin term for “wandering,” which makes sense when you realize that the nerve “wanders” from the brain down into the abdomen, passing through various organs such as the heart, lungs, and the digestive tract.
What does the vagus nerve do?
When the vagus nerve is strong and in shape — “toned” — it helps the body swallow and breathe, maintain heart rate and digestion, regulate emotions and pain and control inflammation, explains neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, MD, PhD.
The vagus nerve conveys sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system (CNS). So, it can let your brain know how well your heart is doing, how full your stomach is and other information related to critical bodily functions.
The vagus nerve is also a key player in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), calming your body’s “fight or flight” response to stress. And according to Scott Noorda. D.O., a functional medicine specialist at Resolve Medical in Utah, the nerve optimizes energy and immunity, too. It signals when it’s time to ‘rest and digest.’ If you have trouble relaxing and/or have trouble turning off stress, a weak vagus nerve could be to blame. (Click through to see how stress can cause diarrhea, too — and how to ease symptoms.)
Indeed, when the vagus nerve weakens, communication between the brain and body breaks down. Since the nerve relays information about how well the body is functioning to the emotional centers of the brain, a weakened vagus nerve can result in exhaustion, brain fog, anxiety and blue moods.
What causes the vagus nerve to become weak?
Columbia University researchers have found that vagus nerve function declines with age, dropping significantly between our 30s and 50s. But that’s not the most significant reason vagal tone decreases. Preventive medicine expert and vagus nerve researcher Paul Spector, MD, explains that daily stressors are a major vagus-weakening culprit.
Prolonged periods of stress caused by everything form family conflicts to financial worries to job pressures (every everyday traffic!) can cause the body to be in a constant state of fight or flight. This stress response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
Over time, increased stimulation of the SNS may hamper the function of the parasympathetic nervous system. And since 75% of the PNS’s fibers are housed in the vagus nerve, this decreases vagus function, too. In fact, Dr. Spector estimates stress causes vagus nerve malfunction for 90% of women.
How can cold water heal the vagus nerve?
While negative emotional stress takes a toll on the vagus, there’s actually a good form of stress that counteracts the bad. Known as hormesis, it’s the body’s way of positively adapting to a moderate, temporary stressor. And as researchers reporting in Current Psychology note, cold exposure triggers this type of beneficial stress by activating the vagus nerve.
Here’s how it works: The bracing impact of cold temperatures acts as a physical stimulus to the SNS. In response, the body’s stress-busting PNS kicks in and the vagus nerve is engaged.
This has two important benefits: It counteracts the uptick in SNS activity, lowering levels of the vagus-harming stress hormone cortisol. What’s more, activating the vagus nerve keeps it toned and healthy to ward off future malfunctions.
The best cold water cures that tone the vagus nerve
Sip a cold glass of water
Research in Scientific Reports found sipping plenty of water combats the dehydration that can cause the vagus nerve to falter. But for an added bonus, opt for cold water. Vagus nerve activity increased by 39% in people who drank about 8 oz. of ice water, a study in Clinical Autonomic Research found. Meanwhile, it dipped by 5% in those who drank room-temperature water. Experts explain that cold water acts on nerve endings in the esophagus, causing them to send stimulating signals to the vagus. (Click through to see how cold water can also whisk away brain fog fast and why a cold pack is one of the best migraine self-care remedies.)
Drape a cold pack over your cheeks
Triggering a response known as the diving reflex boosts vagus nerve function. And it doesn’t require diving into a chilly pool. Instead, just reach for a cold pack.
In a University of Buffalo study, measurements of vagus nerve activity increased up to 163% in folks who cooled their faces. The trick: Applying ice water to your cheeks, forehead and closed eyes for three minutes.
Simply fill a zip-top bag with ice water and drape it over the upper half of your face. Or for an on-the-go option, use a towel that cools down to 30 degrees below body temperature when wet. One to try: MISSION Original Microfiber Cooling Towel (Buy from Amazon, $14.99).
End your shower with a blast of cold water
Immersing your body in cold water stimulates cold receptors in the skin that activate the vagus nerve. And a study in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine found cold water baths boost vagus nerve activity by 280% in 20 minutes.
But if chilly bath doesn’t sound appealing, try ending your shower with a blast of cold water instead. Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine experts say cold showers stimulate cold receptors in skin, too, and so help tone the vagus nerve.
More ways cold water therapy can help your health
Cold water does more than just tone your vagus nerve. Turns out it’s one of the most effective ways to power up fat burning, too. The shivering produced by cold water exposure activates a type of beneficial body fat known as brown fat, notes Taz Bhatia, MD, author of The Hormone Shift (Buy from Amazon, $27.99).
While the white fat that’s stored in the hips, thighs and belly can be harmful when it builds up in the body, brown fat has been shown to increase fat-burning and metabolism, she explains.
“That makes activating it with cold showers and baths extremely helpful for weight loss,” she says. “In fact, it can be game-changing if you’re struggling to lose weight.”
A study out of Maastricht University Medical Center confirms the slimming connection: As brown fat activity increased, total body fat decreased from 35% to 10%.
What’s more, activating brown fat delivers other health benefits. Research conducted at Rockefeller University suggests it keeps blood sugar in balance to lower risk of type 2 diabetes by 52%. Plus, study authors found that individuals who harbored active brown fat were less likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Not a fan of cold water? Here are 4 more ways to tone the vagus nerve
As effective as cold water is at strengthening the vagus nerve, the strategies above aren’t the only ones that tone it. Other simple (and science-backed) methods:
Hum your favorite tunes
The vagus connects to the vocal cords via muscles at the back of the throat. And as Dr. Noorda notes, “Humming produces vibrations that activate these muscles to stimulate the nerve.”
Research in Cureus proves it works: Scientists found humming for 15 minutes enhanced measurements of vagus nerve function by 176% in one day.
Can’t resist breaking out in song when listening to your favorite tunes? Go ahead: Scientists reporting in the journal Frontiers in Psychology say singing delivers similar results.
Brew a cup of fragrant bergamot tea
Compounds such as limonene and linalool that found in the Mediterranean fruit bergamot fire up nerves in the nose linked to the vagus. And a study in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests sniffing bergamot’s aroma for 10 minutes revs vagus nerve function by 44%.
Folks in the study sniffed bergamot essential oil to get the benefits. But since bergamot’s the fruit that gives Earl Grey tea its citrusy flavor and scent, you can simply brew up a cup of tea and breathe deeply as you sip.
Slow your breathing
Taking deep breaths strengthens vagal tone, improving the nerve’s ability to relay messages to and from the brain, says Dr. Ruhoy. The trick: Exhale for longer than you inhale. Vagal stimulation occurs when you breathe out. To do: Inhale deeply for four counts, hold for two, then exhale for at least six counts. Repeat for two to three minutes.
Breathe through your heart
Another technique: Heart-focused breathing. It tames negative emotions that tax the vagus nerve. HeartMath Institute research suggests it enhances heart rate variability, the time between heartbeats that’s used a a gauge of vagus nerve function, by up to 566%.
To do: Sit comfortably and place your hand over your heart. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply while focusing on your heart, as if each breath is moving through it.
Recall a time you felt happy, grateful or awed and try to recreate those feelings as you breathe. Repeat for 15 minutes twice a day. For an app and device that guides you through the technique, try the Inner Balance system (Buy from HeartMath, $199).
How a health journalist toned her vagus nerve & restored her health
“A few years ago, I started feeling exhausted and foggy, recalls health writer Gina Roberts-Grey. Maybe that’s what happens after you turn 50, I thought. But it kept getting worse. I’m a freelance health writer, and I worried about my symptoms impacting my livelihood. I was so fuzzy, I feared I’d make errors or miss deadlines.
Tracking down the source of the vagal dysfunction
“I mentioned it to my doctor, who took a health history and said there was nothing wrong. So I began doing my own research. I learned that the body’s vagus nerve sends signals between the brain and body. But excessive stress impairs the network, leading to brain fog and fatigue.
“Suddenly, the pieces fell into place. I had recently lost my beloved dog, who had been sick for several years. And my husband and I were coping with the prolonged illness of an elderly parent.
Discovering an easy — and free! — way to strengthen her vagal nerve
“At the time, I was reading Lauren Chelec Cafritz’s book Breath Love (Buy from Amazon, $6.66). It explained how changing the way you breathe releases stress. And since I read that you can strengthen the vagus nerve with deep breathing, I thought it was worth a try.
“With guidance from the book, I took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled through my nose while squeezing my abs. I did this five times and felt an immediate sense of calm energy. Then I repeated the cycle a few hours later.
“I stuck with it, and after doing the exercises a few times daily, my energy was back! Now, I no longer feel like I’m in a daze. I’m more productive than ever before. I feel like a new person!” —Gina Roberts-Grey
For more on how to stimulate and revive your vagus nerve from our sister magazine:
For more on stress relief, check out:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
First For Women aims to feature only the best products and services. We update when possible, but deals expire and prices can change. If you buy something via one of our links, we may earn a commission. Questions? Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org