The Vagus Nerve: Your Pathway to Calm and Wellness

The vagus nerve, a vital component of the parasympathetic nervous system, plays a crucial role in the body’s “rest and digest” functions. It extends from the brainstem, travels through the neck and chest, and reaches down to the abdomen, innervating key organs such as the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. By regulating heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and respiratory rate, the vagus nerve promotes relaxation and recovery, creating a state of calm and balance in the body.

The term “vagus” means wandering, aptly describing this nerve’s extensive path from the brainstem to the colon, connecting to the middle ear, vocal cords, heart, lungs, and intestines. The nerve influences our emotional states, heart rate, inflammation levels, blood pressure, and digestion. As part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the vagus nerve supports the parasympathetic branch, encouraging the body to “rest and digest.”

The vagus nerve is a pathway for information in the parasympathetic nervous system, carrying neurotransmitters between the brain’s emotional center and organs like the heart, lungs, and stomach. These signals guide organs to respond according to different states: safe and social, fight and flight, or freeze and immobilize.

One of the best ways to tone and stimulate the vagus nerve is through the breath, which is part of the autonomic nervous system and something we do not have to consciously think about. The breath can moderate the communication between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems. If the vagus nerve is like a highway of information from body to brain, the breath is like the gas pedal and brake driving down this highway. For more alertness and energy, take invigorating breaths. Take long, slow belly breaths with an even longer exhale for more calmness (Cleveland Clinic, 2023).

Deep Breathing and Vagal Stimulation

Working with the breath, especially deep, slow breathing, significantly stimulates the vagus nerve. Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing involves engaging the diaphragm and activating the vagus nerve. This practice enhances heart rate variability (HRV), balances the autonomic nervous system, and promotes relaxation (Frontiers in Psychology, 2014).

Mechanisms such as the baroreceptor reflex, where pressure-sensitive sensors in the blood vessels adjust heart rate and blood vessel dilation via the vagus nerve, and the activation of stretch receptors in the lungs during deep inhalation also contribute to the calming effects. The release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that slows the heart rate and promotes relaxation, further underscores the benefits of deep breathing(Frontiers in Psychology, 2014).

Here’s how it works:

Diaphragmatic Movement:

  • Mechanism: Deep breathing involves engaging the diaphragm, the muscle located below the lungs. When you inhale deeply, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, creating more space in the chest cavity and allowing the lungs to expand fully.
  • Impact: This diaphragmatic movement stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs through the diaphragm. The mechanical action of the diaphragm’s movement sends signals to the brain to activate the vagus nerve (NCBI; NCBI; Frontiers).

Heart Rate Variability (HRV):

  • Mechanism: Deep breathing enhances heart rate variability (HRV), which is the variation in time between each heartbeat. High HRV is an indicator of a healthy, responsive vagus nerve.
  • Impact: Deep, slow breathing increases HRV by promoting a balance between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems. This balance enhances vagal tone and parasympathetic activity (NCBI; Frontiers).

Baroreceptor Reflex:

  • Mechanism: Baroreceptors are pressure-sensitive sensors located in the blood vessels, particularly the carotid arteries and the aortic arch. These receptors detect changes in blood pressure and relay this information to the brain.
  • Impact: During deep inhalation, the baroreceptors detect changes in blood pressure and send signals to the brain to adjust heart rate and blood vessel dilation via the vagus nerve. This reflex helps maintain blood pressure stability and promotes relaxation (Science Direct; Frontiers).

Activation of Stretch Receptors:

  • Mechanism: Deep breathing activates stretch receptors in the lungs, which are part of the pulmonary system. These receptors respond to the physical expansion of the lungs during inhalation.
  • Impact: When these stretch receptors are activated, they send signals through the vagus nerve to the brainstem. This activation triggers the parasympathetic response, promoting a state of calm and relaxation (NCBI; Frontiers).

Release of Acetylcholine:

  • Mechanism: The vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps slow the heart rate and promote relaxation.
  • Impact: Deep breathing enhances the release of acetylcholine, which acts on the heart to reduce heart rate and encourages a state of calm and rest (Psychology Today; Frontiers).

Physiological Benefits of Vagal Stimulation Through Deep Breathing

  • Reduced Heart Rate: Deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which releases acetylcholine and reduces the heart rate, promoting a state of relaxation (NCBI).
  • Lower Blood Pressure: By enhancing parasympathetic activity, deep breathing helps lower blood pressure by promoting vasodilation and reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, reducing the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases (American Heart Association).
  • Improved Digestion: Vagal stimulation promotes digestive processes by enhancing peristalsis and increasing the secretion of digestive enzymes (NCBI)
  • Enhanced Emotional Regulation: Increased vagal tone is associated with better emotional regulation, helping individuals manage stress and anxiety more effectively (NCBI).
  • Anti-Inflammatory Effects: The vagus nerve has anti-inflammatory properties, reducing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and promoting overall health (Science Direct; NCBI).
  • Improved Heart Rate Variability: Research shows that deep breathing exercises significantly increase HRV, indicating enhanced vagal tone and parasympathetic activity (Chopra Institute).
  • Stress Reduction: Deep breathing practices are associated with reduced cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone, indicating a reduction in the stress response mediated by the HPA axis (Psychology Today).

By incorporating deep breathing practices into daily life, we can harness the power of the vagus nerve to reduce stress and enhance overall well-being. Remember, the simple act of taking slow, deep breaths can signal to your body that it is safe, allowing it to rest, digest, and thrive.

How to Practice Deep Breathing

Find a comfortable place to meditate. At times, resting on your back may make it easier to access a full diaphragmatic breath. Make any adjustments so that you feel at ease.

Bring your awareness to your breath. No need to breathe in any special way. Just notice the inhale and exhale.

Notice the quality of the breath drawing in and flowing out. How the inhale creates spaciousness and is revitalizing. Sense how the exhale is an opportunity to release and relax more.

It may be helpful to bring your awareness to a part of the body where you can really feel the breath, like the tip of your nose or the rise and fall of your chest.

Become aware of the difference between thinking about your breath and feeling your breath. Connect to the feeling of the breath breathing the body.

Invite the breath to flow down into the bottom of the rib cage. Sense the ribs and abdomen subtly expand on the inhale and feel the release on the exhale.

For the next 10 breaths, stay aware of the rise on the inhale and release on the exhale. When you become aware that your mind wanders away to a thought or sound, simply notice and bring your awareness back to the feeling of the breath. Coming back to the breath over and over again.

When you are ready, take a deeper breath in and exhale let it all go.

Notice how you feel without judgment and feel gratitude for your practice.

How Deep Breathing Stimulates the Vagus Nerve: The Science and Physiology