How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function to Reduce Inflammation and Support the Brain

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function to Reduce Inflammation and Support the Brain

On the podcast, I’ve discussed how the vagus nerve plays a part in nervous system health and can help with sensory disorders. If you aren’t familiar with the vagus nerve and what it does in the body, you’re not alone! More and more evidence in recent years is helping us understand this lesser-known bodily system and how it controls inflammation, brain and organ function, our body’s perception of stress, and more.

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve (also known as the 10th cranial nerve) is actually a set of nerves (right vagus nerve and left vagus nerve) that starts at the brain stem. It then meanders through the body, touching the vital organs, and ends in the gut. It in effect connects the brainstem to the gut and other vital organs in the body. The vagus nerve transmits information between these organs and plays a part in the parasympathetic nervous system.

Why Vagal Tone Matters

Vagal tone is essentially how healthy or “toned” the vagus nerve is. The higher the vagal tone, the easier it is to get into a relaxed state.

Research published in Psychological Science in 2013 shows a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, good physical health, and good emotional health. Although the researchers admit “the mechanisms underlying the association between positive emotions and physical health remain a mystery,” they did establish a connection between a toned vagal nerve and better physical and emotional health. The reverse is also true. The better your physical and emotional health, the better your vagal tone.

What Does the Vagus Nerve Do in the Body?

The vagus nerve is an important player in optimal health, specifically when it comes to entering a parasympathetic state, or relaxed state. Here are some of the ways the vagus nerve affects the body.

Connects the Brain to the Gut

If you’ve ever had a gut feeling about something, that’s because of your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the gut and sends information back and forth. This is also called the gut-brain axis. Your gut tells your brain information via electric impulses called “action potentials.”

Connects the Brain to Other Organs

The vagus nerve also connects the brain to other vital organs as it makes its way to the gut. It carries sensory information from the organs to the brain.

The vagus nerve plays an important role in controlling the heart rate. The vagus nerve stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which reduces heart rate. An increase in heart rates requires inhibition of vagus nerve stimulation (which means no acetylcholine release). Doctors can plot your heart rate variability (HRV) and discover a lot about the health of your heart and vagus nerve. If your HRV is high, your vagal tone is high.

The vagus nerve also plays a part in lung function. Acetylcholine that the vagus nerve stimulates to release is also responsible for telling the lungs to breathe.

Controls the Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” aspect of the nervous system (in contrast to the fight or flight mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system). As mentioned, the vagus nerve stimulates the release of acetylcholine to reduce the heart rate (in relaxation). So the vagus nerve plays an important role in activating relaxation and recovery.

Stimulates Digestive Tract

The vagus nerve is responsible for stimulating digestion. It does this even before eating any food. It sends signals to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to begin producing gastric juices to prepare for digestion. If the vagus nerve is not optimal, digestion isn’t optimal.

Stimulates Memory Making

A University of Virginia study found that vagus nerve stimulation can help solidify memories by stimulating the release of norepinephrine. This can be huge for people suffering from memory issues or those with Alzheimer’s disease. Read more about this fascinating study here.

Prevents Chronic Inflammation

One of the most amazing functions of the vagus nerve is that it can prevent inflammation. Chronic inflammation is implicated in many modern illnesses from cancer to heart disease. According to an article published in Molecular Medicine, when the vagus nerve senses inflammation (by the presence of pro-inflammatory cytokine, for example) it stimulates the release of anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters to regulate the immune system.

Additionally, a 2016 study found that vagus nerve stimulation helped reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, an illness without a cure.

Natural Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

It’s clear that vagus nerve stimulation is important for optimal health. There is an FDA regulated device that you can have implanted in the body. It sends electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. But there are other ways of stimulating the vagus nerve without surgery, devices, or side effects.

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy has many benefits from faster recovery from exercise to improved immune function. Acute cold exposure also activates the vagus nerve and cholinergic neurons and nitrergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways, according to a 2001 study. This means cold exposure can also increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve, lowering the sympathetic (fight or flight) response.

Deep Breathing

It’s well-known that deep, slow breathing can help induce relaxation. As mentioned earlier, vagal stimulation can cause relaxation but the opposite is also true. Relaxation can stimulate the vagal nerve. So inducing relaxation through deep breathing can help improve vagal tone. This will then make it easier to get into a relaxed state in the future!

Singing, Humming, Gargling

Singing and humming may be relaxing on their own, but there’s a physiological reason for it. The vagus nerve is attached to the vocal cords. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that singing, humming, and even gargling can help activate it. Chewing also stimulates vagus nerve activity (and the parasympathetic system that activates digestion, which makes sense!). This means chewing gum, while it may have its downsides, also stimulates the vagus nerve.

Intermittent Fasting

I have talked about intermittent fasting and how it can be beneficial to your health. Intermittent fasting can improve mitochondrial and cognitive function. It may also improve metabolism and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

But it turns out these health benefits may be related to intermittent fasting’s ability to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone. A 2003 study found that fasting is a physiological activator of the vagus nerve.

Wave Vibration

Wave vibration has been heavily studied by the scientific community for its health benefits. This therapy involves standing on an oscillating plate that produces low-level vibrations. These vibrations then create positive stress throughout the body (like the kind of stress created by exercise). This stress activates the vagal nerve among other parts of the body.


Probiotics are an important part of the diet and are beneficial for many ailments from digestive problems to skin issues. It turns out, probiotics may also be helpful in stimulating the vagus nerve. Researchers of a 2011 study found that giving mice Lactobacillus Rhamnosus increased their GABA production and decreased stress as well as depression and anxiety-related behavior.

Interestingly, those given the probiotics who did not have a vagus nerve (it was removed) did not see the same results. This suggests that the improved stress resilience had something to do with activation of the vagus nerve.

Healthy Fats and Omega-3s

A 2011 study published in Frontiers of Psychology discovered that high fish consumption is associated with a nervous system that is predominantly parasympathetic (relaxed) and enhanced vagal activity. Researchers surmised that the omega-3 content of the fish was the reason for this. This is one reason I take an omega-3 supplement daily.


Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But it looks like it may also be helpful in stimulating the vagus nerve. This could be the reason that exercise helps us to relax. One 2010 study found that mild exercise stimulated gastric emptying and improved digestion. They discovered that this happened because of vagal stimulation.


Research suggests that massage can be beneficial in stimulating the vagus nerve. In one 2012 study premature infants who were massaged had greater weight gain due to vagal activity. This is one reason we try to use a variety of massage techniques and tools at home.

Foot reflexology can also help improve vagal tone. According to a study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, foot reflexology increased vagal modulation, decreased sympathetic modulation, and lowered blood pressure.

Laughter and Social Enjoyment

We already know that laughter and being around friends and family is a good way to relax. But a 2013 study stumbled upon an interesting finding: there’s a connection between physical health emotional health and social enjoyment. Positive social interactions influence positive emotions, which improve vagal tone. This then improved physical health.

The study concluded that “positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward-spiral dynamic.” The study also found that regular meditation and positive affirmation could get people into this upward spiral.


The ancient Chinese medicine treatment of acupuncture may be beneficial in stimulating the vagus nerve. Research shows that ear acupuncture can benefit the following:

  • cardiovascular regulation
  • respiratory regulation
  • gastrointestinal tract regulation

Also, foot reflexology can decrease blood pressure by modulating the vagus nerve, according to a 2012 study.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation is Good for Health!

The vagus nerve has gotten a lot of attention lately for all the amazing things it can do for health. As more science explains the mechanisms of the mind-body connection, methods like this become a little less “woo” and a lot more mainstream.

It’s very simple and easy to stimulate the vagus nerve and get these benefits, making vagus nerve stimulation an accessible (and low-cost) way to improve overall physical and emotional health. I’ve been trying to work more of these techniques into my daily routine. (The kids especially love when I walk around gargling!)

Bottom line, I’m willing to look a little foolish if it means teaching my kids about a lesser-known bodily system (the vestibular system is another one we’re working on) and how to take care of it.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Have you heard of the vagus nerve before? Do you use any of these methods, or others? I’d love to hear!

  1. Kok, B. E. et al. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123–1132.
  2. Pavlov, V. A., Wang, H., Czura, C. J., Friedman, S. G., & Tracey, K. J. (2003). The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway: a missing link in neuroimmunomodulation. Molecular medicine (Cambridge, Mass.), 9(5-8), 125–134.
  3. Frieda A. Koopman et al. Vagus nerve stimulation inhibits cytokine production and attenuates disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis. PNAS July 19, 2016 113 (29) 8284-8289.
  4. Yuan PQ, Taché Y, Miampamba M, Yang H. Acute cold exposure induces vagally mediated Fos expression in gastric myenteric neurons in conscious rats. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2001;281(2):G560-8.
  5. Mäkinen TM et al., Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2008 Sep;79(9):875-82.
  6. Vickhoff, B. et al. (2013). Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 334. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334

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Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


18 responses to “How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function to Reduce Inflammation and Support the Brain”

  1. Marcia J Petersen Avatar
    Marcia J Petersen

    My husband has sneezing, a lot and hard especially in the morning when he gets up. Sometimes before he eats or after. He has many at a time and they are loud. He was told by someone else who got the information from a Dr. Is this true and is there anything he can do to prevent or help my husband?

  2. Estelle Avatar

    10 drops pure Lime essential oil
    25 drops pure clove essential oil
    Dilute With carrier oil – Lime 1:1 ratio. Clove 1:4 ratio. Apply behind ear on mastoid bone behind earlobes
    3 X daily.

  3. Laura McCullough Avatar
    Laura McCullough

    Thank you for your article. I suffer from vestibular migraines where after the initial vertigo attack, mild headaches and motion sickness can last from weeks to months. Last time this happened, I used a tens machine with an ear attachment to stimulate the vagus nerve. I’m happy to report that I did not have the lingering headaches and motion sickness after the vertigo attack! I was SO pleased. I wear an Oura ring, and have noticed great improvement in my HRV too! The treatment is so relaxing that I often fall asleep with the earpiece still on my ear. I found info about the tens machine and bought the earpiece connection from Washington Wellness – they are online.

  4. Sharon Romine Avatar
    Sharon Romine

    When I have stomach pain I pass out and have been told it’s due to my vagaries nerve. This has happened many times in my life. Is there anything I can do to prevent this?

  5. Shauna Avatar

    On the kinky side… I feel deep throating stimulates the vagas nerve as well…

  6. Kristi Avatar

    How long does it take for vagus nerve stimulation to take effect? Days, weeks, or months? Not necessarily to be fully up to snuff, but to start to notice a difference?


  7. Caroline Avatar

    Well I’m a little sceptical as my partner had a horrible experience with his vagal nerve! He had an operation which required him to have a tracheotomy for a while. When he was still in recovery I was talking to him and he wrote down that he felt a bit funny . Next minute he completely blacked out and I thought he’d died! Doctor came running and adjusted the tracheotomy tube. It turned out it had caught the vagal nerve, did something to his parasympathetic nervous system which basically shut his brain down for a few seconds. It was the weirdest scariest thing ever!! So yes, not sure I’d want to meddle with it!!

  8. ALAN BODDY Avatar

    1975 had a duodenal ulcer (bad pain )cure then in UK was a VAGOTOMY operation.bipass the duodenum and sever some or part of the vagus nerve (i think to stop too much acid)BIG SUCCESS NO PAIN EVERYTHING DIGESTIVELY GREAT!Now 80 years feel fantastic but wonder if this would affect the GUT/BRAIN CONNECTION NOW??

  9. Cindy Baurnfind Avatar
    Cindy Baurnfind

    I use clove oil behind the ears to assist vagul nerve balance

  10. Carolyn Avatar

    I read or listened to a podcast at some point that also said it’s the vagus nerve that makes some people cry at silly commercials and others unable to shed a tear when their best friend dies. This doesn’t really seem to correlate with what you’ve posted here though. I’m wondering if I’m remembering it wrong or if you maybe just didn’t include that because it isn’t as closely tied into the heath area. Do you recall anything about this in your research? Just curious (and probably a little lazy by asking rather than researching myself).

  11. Kim Avatar

    Thank you Katie for this lesson about the Vegus nerve! Super interesting…I had heard of it but never knew all of its functions.

  12. Naomi Pescheux Avatar
    Naomi Pescheux

    Another great way to stimulate the Vagus Nerve is with Face Yoga! Aside from the other benefits of Face Yoga which is improved blood circulation to the face and increased facial muscle tone, one of the lesser known benefits is that many of the poses involve the tongue and one of the extrinsic muscles of the tongue (The Palatoglosus) is directly connected to the Vagus nerve. Hence exercising the tongue and keeping the tongue toned positively affects vagal tone. Interesting, right!?

  13. miriam edelman Avatar
    miriam edelman

    Bless you !
    I have had Migraines for 40 years

    Obviously have had many suggestions as causes and treatments

    One of THE most successful Treatments is putting an ICE PACK at the Base of my Skull right where my Vagus Nerve runs

    When I get TOO RELAXED from HEAT
    EMOTIONS or Severe DIGESTIVE PAIN or CLENCHING /GRINDING my JAW / TEETH while Asleep I begin to get a Migraine .

    YOU no other HAVE reaffirmed my INTUITION and CONNECTED THE DOTS

    I am a follower if yours
    I hope you will connect w me to discuss this issue in more depth

    In Wellness and Happiness

  14. Danette Avatar

    Why was chiropractic left out of your recommendations for vagal stimulation? After all, the nervous system is central to our profession.

  15. Sally Ball Avatar
    Sally Ball

    Cursive handwriting also assists in relaxing the body. Lots on research on the internet on “health benefits of hand writing.” I write slowly and meditatively in my prayer journal at night and it is calming and relaxing.

  16. Susan Avatar

    Great article! I can’t wait to try these tips to stimulate my vagus nerve.

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