The Vagus Nerve Connection to Your Body, Your Skin, and a Peaceful Mindset
With mental health month in full swing, we want to take today to pause and consider one of the best ways you can support your mental health. (Even though mental health month is every month for us.)
If you’re going through a challenging time, we deeply understand. That’s why we believe we could all use a little extra knowledge and tools to unwind in a way that builds a healthy body + mind.
The vagus nerve is getting a lot of buzz in that category right now, and for good reason.
It’s not something covered in anatomy class. But it’s pretty interesting once you understand the function of your vagus nerve. It affects your body and skin health – for better or worse. So it deserves a moment in the spotlight.
As the respected organization Parsley Health points out, this nerve is similar to having a “chill-out button” in your back pocket that you can access anytime. (What a great analogy.)1
There’s a world of ways to access + “activate” this nerve through exercises and more. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. ;) First, let’s discuss what this dynamic nerve does for your body and its main purposes.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve has an incredible list of duties within the body, most of which we couldn’t survive without.
It contains 3/4th of the nerve tissue in your parasympathetic nervous system.2
It’s also the longest nerve in the body. It travels from your brain all the way down to your digestive tract.3 These nerves relax your body after times of stress or danger.
It regulates many of your body’s major functions like:4
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Immune function
It’s no wonder it plays such an important role. When you look at a diagram of the vagus nerve, you’ll see it connects to almost every major organ in the body, including:5
→ Taste buds and salivary glands
→ Eye nerves
→ Large and small intestines
→ Bladder and reproductive organs
It carries signals + directions to and from these organs and contributes to managing inflammation in your body:5
“It also initiates anti-inflammatory signals, effectively reducing damaging inflammation throughout the body. In short, a higher vagal tone means a healthy internal world.”
The vagus nerve is crucial in moving us out of flight or fight mode. It’s what slows us down, calms us down, and regulates stress after experiencing an overstimulating moment.
Speaking of slowing down, if you love your sleep at the end of the day, you can thank your vagus nerve. It sends signals to your body when it’s time to wind down at night, encouraging the hormones that make you sleepy + relaxed.
If you’re familiar with the “brain and gut axis” often referenced in the holistic world, guess where credit is due? Yep, your vagus nerve. It runs from your brain to your digestive tract – that’s a big reason the brain affects the gut – and vice versa. It receives info/intel from your gut microbiome and sends it to your brain.
And as we know, both your gut and brain affect skin health. Are you catching on…? ;)
You may know where we’re going with this since we’re believers in holistic health principles. If the whole body is affected by the vagus nerve, you can also bet your skin is – even if indirectly.
The Connection Between Your Vagus Nerve + Skin Health
There may not be a direct link between skin and vagus nerve health (yet!). But we can easily trace the symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction and put them side by side with what we DO know about gut health, full body health, emotional health, and their connection to the skin.
The simplest way to put it? Full body health = skin health, so it’s all connected. Skin is a reflection of your internal well-being.
Plus, research shows that poor vagal nerve function is often associated with digestive disorders, poor sleep health, fatigue, and anxiety.6 Any of those ring a bell for skin-related issues?
This quote from a holistic health practitioner does a great job of explaining just how vital it is for full-body health (which we know includes your skin):5
→ So, what causes vagal nerve function to decline?
Most often, an overwhelming number of circumstances cause the body and brain to remain in flight or fight mode. When this happens, your body doesn’t get the chance to rest, heal, and reset.
Your energy gets directed elsewhere to compensate for the heightened sense of panic. Without parasympathetic (calming) regulation, your body cannot direct healing nutrients + energy to areas like your skin.
And one thing no one can deny: stress affects the skin. Ever experienced breakouts when you felt overwhelmed or pushed to the limit? With chronic stress levels in our society, this is a common occurrence. And unfortunately, it’s often not addressed as the real health crisis it is.
So to us, linking the vagus nerve to the condition of your skin is intuitive.
Understanding how to support your vagus nerve with some simple exercises is crucial to supporting your body – inside and out. Especially when you consider the stress-filled environments most of us live and work in.
Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
Based on the stress-filled environment we mentioned, you can probably guess where we’re going with this… reduce your stress. ;)
Now, of course, this is preached far and wide, and it’s easier said than done. But thankfully, there are proven studies and educated experts to help. According to these resources, there are specific ways to directly “stimulate” (aka activate) your vagus nerve.
Usually called vagus nerve exercises, these are practices that kickstart your parasympathetic response.
Many of the exercises can be done from the comfort of your home, workplace, or anywhere.
If you’ve been around PP long, you know we love to remind you that less stress = less skin inflammation and skin woes. It’s a big reason we’ve curated a collection of nourishing products, rituals, and practices that help you enter a state of calm, zen, and parasympathetic activation.
Studies show that activating the vagus nerve is thought to slow your heart rate + reduce emotional stress.13 Can we get an amen?!
Many holistic doctors will reference vagus “tone.” Think of it like muscle tone – we can build it up over time, and it’s essentially the “health status” of our vagus nerve. It tells us how well it’s doing its job. Vagus tone is usually measured using heart rate variability.
Vagus Nerve Exercises to Try
With that said, here are some of the most popular vagus nerve exercises – some of which you may already be doing!
- Massage – Rhythmic movements calm you down and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, stimulating your vagus nerve.
- Exercise – Interval training and endurance training can increase your vagus nerve activity and improve heart rate variability.7
- Meditation/mindfulness – Naturally causes your breathing and heart rate to slow, activating a relaxed state that supports your vagus nerve’s health (“tone”).
- Examples: prayer, guided meditation, gratitude journaling, or yoga practice.
- Sound therapy – There’s mixed scientific proof, but of course, we’ve all experienced the emotional release that can come with a good jam session in the car to our favorite album.
- Deep breathing – Similar to meditation, it can be done at any time without closing your eyes or needing a quiet, focused space.
- Examples: Exhale twice as long as you inhale to turn on your parasympathetic response. Add diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing to massage internal organs and stimulate the vagus nerve even further.5 Yoga also incorporates breathing exercises.
- Foot reflexology – A professional reflexology massage can lower blood pressure and decrease sympathetic activity in the body.8 (Bonus: it costs less than a full-body massage.)
- Vocal Cord Vibration – Anything including/initiating the voice box/vocal cords is thought to stimulate the nerve.
- Examples: Gargling water, humming, or singing.
- Cold water immersion – Something as simple as a cold shower reduces your heart rate to preserve oxygen, activating your parasympathetic nervous system.9
See, there are a variety of fun, relaxing, and enjoyable activities you can use to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. But don’t underestimate the power of simple lifestyle choices too.
Other Easy Ways to Support Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
Regular activation of your parasympathetic system improves the health of your vagus nerve to do its job more effectively. Here are a few simple, easy lifestyle shifts you can focus on:
- Eat lots of anti-inflammatory foods – avoid seed oils and eat more omega-3 healthy fats, like avocados, wild-caught salmon, and chia seeds.
- Reduce blue light exposure – this enhances your sleep. With less blue light exposure, your body’s circadian rhythm is able to regulate and help you maximize sleep.
- Improve sleep hygiene to sleep more deeply – it’ll optimize your body’s time to recover from stress.
- Get outside more – try a new practice like forest bathing. We know that time in nature is powerful for our health.
- Practice gratitude regularly to reset your mindset – this will help you feel equipped to approach stressful or taxing situations.
- Do something that’s stress-relieving to you personally, with no agenda – this will look different to each individual. It could be coloring, gardening, cooking, taking a warm bath, journaling, playing with your pet, etc.
Here’s the great part: most of these exercises should feel like a treat – a deep, relaxing practice in the middle of a crazy, hectic world.
So it makes it that much easier to incorporate into your routine when you know you’ll look forward to the relaxing sensation that accompanies it.
You Can Support Your Body + Mental Health Today
If mental health is an ongoing struggle for you or you simply want to prioritize your mental well-being, remember you’re not alone. There are always resources available for you. Practicing some of these exercises routinely can help you build resilience to stress over time.
So yes, achieving a blissful state of peace IS possible, even amid a chaotic world and life. We’re not saying it’ll solve all your problems. But it’s a great start to resetting and grounding yourself for whatever life may throw your way.
Prioritizing the health of your vagus nerve may just help resolve some of your long-standing skin-related concerns + open your life to a new way of being.
- Parsley Health | How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve: 8 Exercises to Try for Calm
- Web MD | Vagus Nerve: What to Know
- Verywell Health | Anatomy of the Vagus Nerve
- Frontiers | Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders
- Pranacea Wellness | The Vagus Nerve: Master of Our Parasympathetic Nervous System
- National Library of Medicine | The Vagus Nerve in Appetite Regulation, Mood and Intestinal Inflammation
- National Library of Medicine | Effectiveness of Moderate Intensity Interval Training as an Index of Autonomic Nervous Activity
- National Library of Medicine | Foot Reflexology Can Increase Vagal Modulation, Decrease Sympathetic Modulation, and Lower Blood Pressure in Healthy Subjects and Patients With Coronary Artery Disease
- National Library of Medicine | Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial
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