The Vagus Nerve: The Key to a Healthier Stress Response

The Vagus Nerve: The Key to a Healthier Stress Response


These days everyone is seeking the source of their stress and trying to find a way to alleviate tension. One often overlooked part of the body, the vagus nerve, is intrinsically linked to the mind and body’s stress response. Stimulating this nerve and improving the vagal tone can help enhance the body’s resiliency.

The vagus nerve

While the vagus nerve isn’t widely known, it’s responsible for a handful of essential involuntary functions. Founder of OSEA, Jenefer Palmer, says it’s the longest and most complex cranial nerve in the body and plays a role in everything from emotions to quality of sleep. It’s “the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system and controls physiological functions such as our digestion, heart rate, mood and even our immune system,” explains wellness expert and holistic nutritionist Jennifer Hanway. A fun fact: “Its name, derived from Latin, meaning ‘wandering,’ and rightly so as the 10th cranial nerve, it extends from the brain stem down to the gut,” says Palmer.

The vagus nerve as it relates to anxiety and stress

As Hanway said, the vagus nerve is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has a big job. Hanway explains that it’s the control center for the body’s “rest and digest” state. “Our body is always in two states—either ‘Rest and Digest’ or ‘Fight or Flight,’” says Hanway. Fight or flight is part of the related sympathetic nervous system. “If it’s not functioning optimally (called low vagal tone), you may have heightened levels of stress and anxiety and find it hard to relax after encountering a stressful situation.”

Additionally, the nerve has a special reflex that helps the body cope with stress. “When your anxiety is through the roof, the vagus nerve tells your body to relax by releasing acetylcholine, a soothing neurotransmitter that melts tension away,” says Palmer. “The more toned the nerve is, the more effective this relaxation response will be.”

Vagus nerve stimulation

Surgical vagus nerve stimulation involves an electrical device being implanted beneath the skin, on the patient’s chest, connected to the left vagus nerve. Hanway explains that the device then sends signals to the brain to stimulate nerve function. She adds that it’s currently FDA-approved in the U.S. for the treatment of epilepsy and depression.

“However, there are non-surgical ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, and these typically involve deep breathing practices. Other options include gargling or loud signing, foot massage and cold-water face immersion,” says Hanway. Palmer suggests trying to stimulate the nerve through a self-massage to help increase vagal tone. “It can promote stress management, blood circulation and positive social engagement,” Palmer says.

Vagus nerve oil

OSEA Vagus Nerve Oil ($48) is the gold standard for oil that helps support relaxation and melt away signs of stress via the vagus nerve. “The Vagus Nerve Oil helps to promote a sense of well-being and serenity,” explains Palmer. “It is a calming blend of essential oils, including juniper, lavender and chamomile in a hydrating base of jojoba oil.”

Dispense the oil into your hands, rub them together, cup your hands to your nose and inhale deeply, instructs Palmer. Then, “lightly massage in a circular motion along both sides of your neck. Gently rub behind your earlobes.” She suggests also using the oil “before any emotionally balancing or calming activity for an enhanced experience,” such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga or stretching. It’s “a kind way to show some love to yourself and to stimulate the nerve,” says Palmer.