Cedars-Sinai Blog

Bolster Your Brain by Stimulating the Vagus Nerve

A woman massaging her scalp

Scientists are discovering that a critical component of the nervous system, called the vagus nerve, may help promote and protect brain function.

The vagus nerve acts as an information superhighway to the brain, delivering information that helps control digestion, heart rate, mood and even the body’s inflammation response. Here, Cedars-Sinai experts explain the role of the vagus nerve and how to best support vagus nerve activity.

"It turns out that many of the activities that we associate with calmness—things like deep breathing, meditation, massage and even the experience of awe—effect changes in the brain, in part, through increasing vagus nerve activity."

Vagus Nerve Function

The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves that connect our brain and body. It extends from the brain stem all the way to the gut and is a critical part of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Unlike the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the fight, flight and freeze response, the parasympathetic nervous system controls resting heart rate, respiration and digestion. It’s the key to unlocking the relaxation response. In recent years, researchers discovered that the vagus nerve also puts the brakes on inflammation, a key player in the onset of nearly all chronic diseases, including those that affect cognition.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved devices that stimulate the vagus nerve with electrical impulses for the treatment of specific conditions, including epilepsy, depression, and migraine and cluster headaches. But research shows that vagus nerve stimulation may help bolster brain function, even in healthy people.

“It turns out that many of the activities that we associate with calmness—things like deep breathing, meditation, massage and even the experience of awe—effect changes in the brain, in part, through increasing vagus nerve activity,” said Vernon B. Williams, MD, a sports neurologist at Cedars-Sinai.

And a growing body of research links meditation, mindfulness and even listening to music (which can elicit feelings of awe) to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment. But scientists are still unclear on how the vagus nerve impacts health and cognition.

“Research is underway to try to understand whether vagus nerve activity has a direct effect on pathology, immunity and total functioning, both physical and cognitive,” said Mitzi Gonzales, PhD, director of Translational Research in the Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders at Cedars-Sinai.

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Vernon B. Williams, MD

Pain Management, IM Neurology

Vernon B. Williams, MD

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Six Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Like our muscles, our nerves need a certain amount of activity to function optimally. Though most of us don’t pay much attention to vagal nerve stimulation in our daily lives, there are ways to do so without equipment. While such activities may not make you break a sweat, the health effects might be as dramatic as a 60-minute cardio session.

Take a breath. During times of stress, most people hold their breath and deprive the vagus nerve in the process. One way to activate the vagus nerve is through slow, deep belly breathing. Focusing on your breath shifts your focus away from stressful mind chatter and toward the rhythm of the breath.

Do this: Breathe in through your nose for a count of six and out through your mouth for a count of eight. Watch your belly expand on the inhale and contract on the exhale. Just a few minutes of deep breathing can keep your vagus nerve active.

Meditate. Meditation activates the vagus nerve and calms the network of nerves that control myriad physiological processes. “Meditation and mindfulness not only lower your heart rate, but they also reduce blood pressure levels,” said Gonzales. “And there’s a clear link between hypertension and increased risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disease.”

Do this: Take breaks throughout the day to quiet your mind. You can even do a mindfulness meditation where you pause, take notice of your surroundings and breathe.

Exercise. Exercise boosts the number of blood vessels that fuel your brain, spurs the development of new thought pathways, enhances connectivity between brain cells and stimulates the vagus nerve. There’s even evidence that exercise outperforms medication for a number of intractable conditions, including depression, anxiety and memory loss.

Do this: Try endurance activities such as jogging, cycling and swimming. Research suggests that endurance and interval training stimulate the vagus nerve and control parasympathetic activity in the brain. That may be one reason why athletes report reaching a sort of “high” during long-distance runs.

Get a massage. All types of massage, from the scalp to the feet, help stimulate the vagus nerve. One exception: deep tissue, or painful massage, which can trigger the “fight or flight response.” Gentle and moderate pressure is best, and primary areas of focus are the neck, shoulders and feet. Studies show that foot reflexology (a type of massage) can boost vagus nerve activity and reduce blood pressure.

Do this: Give yourself regular neck and shoulder massages, rub the soles of your feet in short strokes and do yoga poses that help work out the kinks in your body.

Step into the cold. Short-term exposure to very cold temperatures helps stimulate vagus nerve pathways and reduces the body’s natural stress response. Research shows that immersing yourself in cold water can help slow your heart rate and redirect blood flow to your brain.

Do this: Finish your shower with a cold-water rinse, starting with 30 seconds and increasing the duration over time. Wash your face with cold water at the end of a long day, or if you’re really brave, take a dip in ice-cold water.

Get inspired. The experience of awe is one way to get the vagus nerve humming. “When we engage with something greater than ourselves and feel a sense of connection to others and the outside world, it activates the vagus nerve—which can help lower blood pressure, inhibit the stress response and reduce inflammation,” Williams said. “It can also increase heart rate variability (a biomarker of improved health), reduce pain and improve sleep and mood.”

Do this: Engage in activities that create a sense of awe and wonder. Take walks in nature (without your phone), listen to inspiring music and cultivate relationships that provide a sense of purpose and meaning.