Viva Las Vagus: How Vagal Tone Impacts Your Health (and 10 Ways to ‎Improve It)‎

Sometimes I wonder how long I’ve had a problem with my vagus nerve. Years? Decades? Vagus means “wanderer.” This nerve—the longest one in your body—wanders all over your body to important organs such as the brain, neck, ears, tongue, heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, spleen, and reproductive organs in women. The vagus nerve contains motor and sensory fibers. It has wide distribution throughout the body as it passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen. Think of it as the most important nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system.

What Happens When the Vagus Underperforms      

An amped-up perception of stress causes lower vagal tone (or responsiveness), which means the vagus nerve is having performance issues and operating at a lower capacity. If the vagus nerve isn’t happy, you won’t be healthy and are more likely to age faster. Conversely, high vagal tone is a marker of greater altruistic behavior and feeling closeness to others.

Lower vagal tone is linked to a variety of problems:

  • Anxiety 

  • Poor satiety or sense of relaxation while eating 

  • An overactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (including elevated corticotropin releasing hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and cortisol)
  • Difficulty meditating, tuning into what’s happening with your body, and overall accessing the mind-body connection
  • Low stomach acid secretion 

  • Poor absorption of B12
  • Gut problems such as slow transit time or irritable bowel syndrome that causes constipation
  • Low or slow bile acid production, so it’s harder to clear fats and toxins
  • Constipation 

  • Poor blood flow to kidneys 

  • Higher blood pressure 

  • Poor glucose control 

  • Poor heart rate variability and greater risk of heart disease 

  • High resting heart rate 

  • Frequent urination 

  • Limited or absent capacity for orgasms 


You may inherit a genetic predisposition to low vagal tone and increased anxiety through the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) gene (SNP ID rs6330), located on chromosome 1. The normal or wild type of the gene is C/T. The variants are interesting: if you inherited one C allele from one parent and one C allele from the other parent, if female you’re likely to be more anxious, and if male you’re less likely to be anxious. But genetics don’t make the final call. If you follow the approach I’ve summarized below, you may be able to circumvent a predisposition.

What to Do

Stress is going to drag you down and rob you of vagal tone unless you learn how to ride it well. Here are my favorite ways to reset vagal tone:  

  1. Singing or chanting
  2. Social connection
  3. Fasting
  4. Hypnosis
  5. Yoga
  6. Acupuncture
  7. Meditation
  8. Laughter
  9. Prayer
  10. Rolling on two massage balls (I like to place them under my mid-back.)

These actions may trigger your stress genes to turn off, bringing a greater sense of calm. Learn more ways to improve vagal tone by picking up my book Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years wherever books are sold.

References

Bonaz, B. “Vagal tone: effects on sensitivity, motility, and inflammation.” Neurogastroenterology & motility 28 no. 4 (2016):455-62.

Tyaqi, A., et al. “Yoga and heart rate variability: A comprehensive review of the literature.” International journal of yoga 9, no. 2 (2016): 97-113. 

He, X., et al. “Novel strategies and underlying protective mechanisms of modulation of vagal activity in cardiovascular diseases.” British journal of pharmacology 172 no. 23 (2015): 5489-500.

Obrien, K. et al. “Insomnia in Chinese Medicine: The Heart of the Matter.” Journal of alternative and complementary medicine 22 no. 9  2016:684-94.

He, B., et al. “Autonomic Modulation by Electrical Stimulation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System: An Emerging Intervention for Cardiovascular Diseases.” Cardiovascular therapeutics 34 no. 3  2016:167-71.

Lim, H.D., et al. “Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Acupuncture Stimulation via the Vagus Nerve.” Public Library of Science one: 11 no. 3 (2016): e0151882.

Lang, UE. “Gender-dependent association of a functional NGF polymorphism with anxiety-related personality traits.” Pharmacopsychiatry 41 no. 5 (2008):196-9.

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Sara Gottfried MD About Sara Gottfried MD

Sara Gottfried, MD is the New York Times bestselling author of the new book, Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years. Her previous New York Times bestsellers are The Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet. After graduating from Harvard Medical School and MIT, Dr. Gottfried completed her residency at the University of California at San Francisco. She is a board-certified gynecologist who teaches natural hormone balancing in her novel online programs so that women can lose weight, detoxify, and slow down aging. Dr. Gottfried lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and two daughters.