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Simple Trick to Relieve Stress: Vagus Nerve Stimulation

By: Rick Ansorge

The next time you’re feeling anxious or depressed, don’t take a prescription drug.

Instead, try a safe and effective remedy for stress that is backed by thousands of years of anecdotal and scientific evidence.

Doctors and other experts say that stimulating something called the vagus nerve – which originates in the brainstem and extends all the way down to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs, and other internal organs – is a quick and easy way to relieve anxiety.

You may have never heard of the vagus nerve, but it is the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that calms you down. When you stimulate your vagus nerve, you counteract your sympathetic nervous system, the one that causes stress by activating your fight-or-flight response.

“It’s almost like yin and yang,” says Mladen Golubic, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.”

When you stimulate your vagus nerve, it releases an array of anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Vagus nerve stimulation is associated with benefits such as improved memory, immune function, sleep, and higher levels of growth hormone. It also may help tame inflammation, allergic responses, and tension headaches.

Unless you’re a yoga master, you cannot directly and consciously stimulate your vagus nerve. But you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve to relieve anxiety and depression.

“Deep breathing is a great example of that,” says Dr. Golubic.“We have a certain space where we can control breathing. We can extend the inhalation and the exhalation. So by those practices we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.”

Other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve include cold-water facial immersion after exercise and submerging the tongue.

“The best practice is a complete breath which involves diaphragmatic breathing,” says Dr. Golubic.

That means expanding your diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the chest cavity and stomach cavity. Also known as “belly breathing,” diaphragmatic breathing is characterized by an expansion of the abdomen instead of the chest.

Start by taking a deep inhalation into your belly while counting to five. Then very slowly exhale while pursing your lips. To get into a vagus-nerve stimulation mode, it’s best to reduce the number of breaths from a typical 10-14 per minute to 5-7 per minute.

“If you look at the studies that have been done, about 10 minutes of deep breathing is enough for you to notice that you’re calming down and becoming relaxed,” Dr. Golubic says. “The key is to do it on a daily basis in such a fashion that you gradually reduce the number of breaths per minute. The whole purpose is to relax.”

Some studies show that cold water facial immersion, especially after exercise, can quickly stimulate the vagus nerve and help reduce the heart rate while activating the digestive and immune systems. The area behind the eyeballs is a particularly accessible zone for stimulation.

The best way to practice this technique is, while seated, bend your head forward into a basin of cold water, and submerge your forehead, eyes, and at least two-thirds of your cheeks. During studies of this technique, the water temperature was kept at about 50-53 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve is to immerse your tongue in saliva. The tongue and the hard and soft palate are other accessible zones for stimulation.

In order to promote salivation, try relaxing and reclining in chair and imagine that you are sucking on a juicy lemon. If that doesn’t work, simply fill your mouth with warm water.

Bathe your tongue in the saliva or water while breathing deeply through your nose. Enjoy the feelings of relaxation in your head, neck, hands, hips, and feet. Do this for three minutes.

“The best part of these techniques is that they are effective, have no side effects, and they are free,” said Dr. Golubic.

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