How Does Stimulating the Vagus Nerve Improve Mental Health?

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In recent years, the potential benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve have come to light, and many people have begun to look into doing it themselves.

Stimulating the vagus nerve has been used with success for physical conditions such as the treatment of epilepsy and Alzheimer's, and it is now also being used to treat mental health issues.

You may wonder what the relationship is between your vagus nerve and your mental health and whether all the talk about stimulating the vagus nerve for mental health is scientifically real or just a trend. And you may even be wondering what the vagus nerve even is, as many of us have never heard of it before recently. Ahead, we'll break down everything you need to know about the vagus nerve and mental health.

What Exactly Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve, which is also known as the vagal nerves, the X cranial nerve, and the tenth cranial nerve, is the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system handles functions like digestion, heart rate, mood, and speech. The vagus nerve runs all the way from our heads to our intestines, on both sides of the spine, connecting through the brain, neck, chest, and stomach.

It can have an anti-inflammatory effect on one's body, which makes it useful for treating a wide array of problems.

Vagus Nerve Research Is Not a New Thing

Though the vagus nerve's functionality only became popular in the mainstream in recent years, stimulation of it has been practiced for decades, and studies around it actually began back in the 1930s.

How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?

Stimulation of the vagus nerve is a surgical procedure. A neurosurgeon performs the surgery in an outpatient context. In addition to an implant, there are ways to stimulate this nerve on your own, without medical intervention; we'll get into those options ahead.

Vague Nerve Stimulation for Depression

Patients with treatment-resistant depression who experienced vagus nerve stimulation proved to have better rates of remission than those who didn't and were able to retain those results for years.

Depression can be resistant to treatment with medication or lifestyle changes, so the device offers an alternative to the more common treatments used. It can be used for both adults and children, with one study noting that "the preliminary data show that it remains a promising treatment option and may provide long-term benefit for children with depression."

Vagus Nerve Stimulation for PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, can impact the lives of trauma victims for a lifetime.

PTSD patients who were studied had a positive response to vagus nerve stimulation, and this success has held for those who simultaneously had traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) as well.

Because TBIs can cause additional mental health issues, it's particularly promising that the treatment was able to aid in the reduction of symptoms regardless of this complexity. PTSD patients also reduced their anxiety levels thanks to this treatment.

How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Mental Health

These are the various ways that the vagus nerve can be stimulated, resulting in benefits such as reduced depression and anxiety.

Stimulating the vagus nerve can also result in physical benefits like a lower heart rate and stronger immunity.

Surgical Implantation

Vagus nerve stimulation via a surgically-implanted device is FDA-approved for the treatment of chronic and recurring depression in patients over 12 years old.

Incisions are made in both your neck and your chest, near your armpit, and a pulse generator is implanted in your chest through the chest incision. The device is battery-powered and about the size of a stopwatch. A wire connects it to your vagus nerve through the incision in your neck. The device is turned on at a separate appointment that occurs weeks after the surgery.

When Do People Start to See Results?

Depending on the condition being treated, the time it takes to see an improvement in your symptoms may vary. For instance, for those with depression, it may take one year to really see a difference. For people with epilepsy, some patients saw improvements in either one, two, or three years.


Commonly used in conjunction with yoga, breathwork has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. It provides stress relief, can boost cognitive functioning, and may assist with improving executive functioning.

Breathwork can be as simple as simply slowing down and focusing on your breathing, or you can try more complex versions of it. One simple and popular method is to consciously breathe in while counting upward, such as from one to ten, then breathe out while counting downward, such as from ten to one.

If it sounds hard to try on your own, there are apps available that can walk you through how to do breathwork, and it can be effective with just a few minutes of practice.

Cold Plunging

Cold plunging, which is the act of immersing oneself in a tub of ice-cold water, has become very popular among wellness enthusiasts.

They may be on to something—cold exposure has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, resulting in lower heart rate variability and stress reduction. One study noted that "the results demonstrate a pattern of cardiovascular reactivity to cold stimulation, suggesting an increase in cardiac-vagal activation. The effect was significant for cold stimulation in the lateral neck area."

This means that the vagus nerve was stimulated specifically through exposure to cold at the neck, the area of the body where it begins.

By Using Your Voice

People often sing or chant because it feels good to do it, and it turns out that it also stimulates your vagus nerve—that could explain the sense of well-being that some people experience when they do those activities.

It's the act of using your voice and your throat that seems to do it. Studies conducted where participants chanted "OHM" showed that the vagus nerve was stimulated in response.

If chanting isn't for you, singing may have similar benefits. Some people even believe that gargling is sufficient because of the usage of the throat involved.

Reflexology Massage

Reflexology involves massaging the feet to stimulate various areas of our bodies. Foot reflexology has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. It's also useful for lowering blood pressure, which is one function of the vagus nerve, and the effects occur in both healthy people and those with cardiovascular disease.

Reflexology is typically considered alternative or complementary medicine, but studies show that it can be useful for many purposes, including this one.

Getting Exercise

Regular exercise is associated with everything from increased immunity to longer lifespans. Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that exercise is also shown to stimulate the vagus nerve.

The good news is that vagus nerve stimulation through exercise isn't dependent on one specific type. You can run, dance, ski, swim, or do anything else you enjoy that makes you break a sweat.

A Word From Verywell

If you're experiencing mental health issues, stimulating your vagus nerve may be one way to help you through them. However, it isn't a replacement for therapy or medication. It's best to discuss new modalities with your practitioner, who can help you learn what may work best for you in your unique situation.

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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.