The vagus nerve is an information highway to the brain, says integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., founder of Seattle’s Center for Healing Neurology. “The nerve descends from the brain stem down the neck, into the chest and then to the abdomen,” she explains. When properly functioning, it helps maintain heart rate and digestion, regulate emotions and pain and control inflammation, she says. But when the nerve is weak, symptoms like exhaustion, brain fog, GI issues, and blue moods can occur.
Stress causes vagus nerve malfunction for 90 percent of women, says vagus nerve researcher Paul Spector, M.D. Other factors: a sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep and a poor diet. But he says most women go undiagnosed because the vague symptoms are considered “normal” in our high-stress culture.
All women would benefit from improving vagus nerve function (also called vagal tone), asserts Dr. Spector, who adds that the strategies below will strengthen the nerve to increase energy.
Deep breathing strengthens vagal tone to reduce stress, sharpen mental clarity and improve function of all vital systems, asserts Dr. Ruhoy. The key: exhaling longer than you inhale, since nerve activity is optimized when exhaling. To do: Inhale deeply for four beats, hold for two, then exhale for at least six, advises Navaz Habib, D.C., author of Activate Your Vagus Nerve ($14.20, Amazon). Repeat for two to three minutes, twice a day.
Also smart: Stimulating cold receptors on nerves in the face signals the vagus nerve to slow breathing and heart rate, lowering stress, says Dr. Spector. To get the benefit, place a cold, wet washcloth on your forehead and bridge of your nose, taking three deep breaths, then breathing normally for five minutes.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.