How Stress Affects the Vagus Nerve

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What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs from your brainstem all the way down to your abdomen. It is responsible for many different functions, including heart rate, digestion, and immunity. It is also one of the most important nerves in the body for maintaining mental health.

However, chronic stress can impact the vagus nerve in a negative way. This can lead to problems such as anxiety and depression. It can also make the body more susceptible to infections and diseases. Therefore, it is important to manage stress in order to maintain a healthy vagus nerve.

Can Stress and Anxiety Affect the Vagus Nerve?

Stress and anxiety can both trigger the vagus nerve. In fact, they are often linked because stress can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can worsen the effects of stress. When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, it can cause a number of symptoms.

Health issues may include pain in the abdomen, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, or fainting.

How Do You Destress the Vagus Nerve?

There are a number of ways to destress the vagus nerve:

  • Exercise: Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve your overall health. It can also help to reduce the sensitivity of the vagus nerve.
  • Meditation: Meditation can help to focus and calm the mind, which can in turn help to reduce stress levels.
  • Deep breathing: Taking deep breaths can help to slow down the heart rate and ease anxiety.
  • Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi, and massage can all help to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

What Happens If the Vagus Nerve Is Damaged?

If the vagus nerve is damaged, it can lead to a number of problems such as:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Early satiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Heartburn

Damage to the vagus nerve is usually caused by trauma, surgery, or disease. In some cases, it may be possible to repair the damage. However, in other cases, the damage may be permanent.

Why Is the Vagus Nerve Important in Stress Management?

If you are stressed it can lead to vagal nerve dysfunction. Dysfunction of the vagal nerve can also be a result of aging. If your vagus nerve has been negatively affected for an extended amount of time, you could develop health issues such as type 2 diabetes, depression, and anxiety.

So, to avoid negative mental of physical health issues, it's important to keep your stress under control.

How Does Breathing Affect the Vagus Nerve?

Breathing deeply can help to calm the vagus nerve. This is because deep breathing helps to slow down the heart rate. When the heart rate is slowed, the body is able to relax and reduce stress levels.

Therefore, deep breathing can be a helpful tool in managing stress and maintaining a healthy vagus nerve.

How to Heal the Vagus Nerve

The good news is that there are things you can do to heal the vagus nerve and improve your overall health:

  • Get tested for autoimmune conditions. Autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis can cause damage to the vagus nerve. If you have an autoimmune condition, it is important to get treated by a qualified physician so that you can heal the underlying condition and reduce the risk of further damage to the vagus nerve. 
  • Improve gut health. The gut-brain connection is well-established in research. This means that if your gut is not healthy, it can impact your mental health. To heal the gut, eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, quality protein, and healthy fats. You may also want to consider supplementing with probiotics or taking other measures to improve gut health
  • Manage stress. Chronic stress can worsen symptoms of a dysfunctional vagus nerve. To reduce stress, make lifestyle changes like getting regular exercise, practicing meditation or yoga, and getting enough sleep. You may also want to try relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Reducing stress will help heal the vagus nerve and improve your overall health. 
  • Consider herbs and supplements. There are many different herbs and supplements that can help heal the vagus nerve. Some of these include ginger, turmeric, omega-3 fatty acids, B-complex vitamins, magnesium, and probiotics. Speak with a qualified healthcare professional before taking any herbs or supplements so that you can be sure they are safe for you. 
  • Try acupuncture. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective for treating a number of conditions, including pain, anxiety, and migraines. It may also help heal the vagus nerve by reducing inflammation and stimulating blood flow. 
  • Stimulate the vagus nerve with electrical stimulation therapy (EST). EST involves using low-level electrical currents to stimulate specific points on the body. EST has been used for many years as a treatment for conditions like pain, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease. More recent research suggests that EST may also help treat conditions like depression, migraines, and GERD by stimulating the vagus nerve. EST is generally considered safe when performed by a qualified healthcare professional. 

A Word From Verywell

The vagus nerve is an important part of maintaining good mental health. If you are experiencing symptoms of a dysfunctional vagus nerve, there are things you can do to heal it. Talk to a qualified healthcare professional about which treatment options are right for you.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."