The topic of stress and stress related illnesses are fascinating to me.  This week’s blog is all about vagal nerve toning which I speak a little bit about when stress management comes into play. The topic of stress and stress related dysfunction usually comes into my consultations when I see hypo cortisolemia and hyper arousal of stress states. Basically when I see someone in a constant fight or flight, or in a constant low state of cortisol output, I usually think about the  stress which we as humans have to experience. When it comes to stress, I have often said lifestyle modifications are so powerful and have much more long lasting impacts on the body. Today’s topic is one which is my favourite and involves the nerve called the “vagal” nerve which helps in stress resiliency.


The vagal nerve, more commonly referred to as the vagus nerve, is the tenth cranial nerve and one of the most significant nerves in the body. It extends from the brainstem through the neck and into the chest and abdomen. This nerve is integral to the branch of our autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is linked to the calm state of the body  which is often characterized as the “rest and digest” system, in contrast to the “fight or flight” response governed by the sympathetic nervous system.


The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in regulating stress responses in the body. It helps control heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestive function. By transmitting signals from the brain to various organs and by receiving sensory information from the body back to the brain, it helps maintain homeostasis. During stressful situations, the vagus nerve can slow down the heart rate and promote calming of the body, helping to counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. On the contrary, when someone is exposed to excessive amounts of stress and/or some form of psychological trauma, the vagal nerve can experience a break in messages. This is a topic of such fascination to me because some individuals feel stress in their bodies, i.e. somatic sensations, whereas others do not. Stress resilience can really depend on a multitude of factors such as modality of birth, early life stressors, nutrition, sleep and current environment.


Chronic stress can have significant adverse effects on our bodies and brains, including:


  • Mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Depression is commonly seen in individuals who are experiencing burn-out and this corelates with low or even excessive amounts of cortisol.


  • Cognitive impairment where prolonged stress can affect concentration, memory, and decision-making.


  • Cardiovascular diseases due to increased heart rate and blood pressure.


  • Digestive problems as stress can affect the absorption of nutrients and cause inflammation. Irritable bowel syndrome is strongly linked to excessive stress on the body.


  • Immune suppression which makes the body more susceptible to infections, and tumor growth.


Improving vagal tone is a vital part of restoring the body’s stress resiliency and vagal tone. It is important to understand what are the contributing factors that resulted in dysfunction in the first place.  Once those are identified, it’s important to take small changes in restoring that dysfunction. The good news is that lifestyle modifications that improve the vagal tone are easy and fun.


  • Deep and Slow Breathing: Regular practices like deep breathing exercises can stimulate the vagus nerve and enhance its tone. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing encourage the body to relax, reducing stress.


  • Cold Exposure: Brief exposures to cold, such as cold showers, can activate the vagus nerve. This activity can help in reducing stress levels and boosting mood. I would be very cautious with cold exposure if you are already in a burn-out phase.


  • Singing, Humming, and Chanting: These activities can stimulate the vagus nerve due to the involvement of the muscles in the throat and the production of sound.


  • Exercise: Moderate exercise can increase the vagal tone, improving heart rate variability and overall cardiovascular health.


  • Probiotics: The gut-brain axis is significantly influenced by the vagus nerve, and a healthy gut microbiome can improve vagal tone. Probiotics can support gut health and indirectly enhance vagal function.


  • Cleaning your tongue & gargling: The gag reflex in the throat influences vagal tone and can help strengthen the vagal nerve.