1. Cold showers
When we expose our bodies to something cold – this first causes an increased sympathetic nervous system response but is quickly halted after we acclimatize to the cold. In other words, our parasympathetic nervous system increases – which is mediated by our vagus nerve. Cold application to activate your vagus nerve can include a cold shower, splashing cold water on your face or drinking cold water.
Mäkinen, T. M., Mäntysaari, M., Pääkkönen, T., Jokelainen, J., Palinkas, L. A., Hassi, J., … Rintamäki, H. (2008). Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine, 79(9), 875–882. https://doi.org/10.3357/ASEM.2235.2008
2. Singing, humming and chanting
Humming, chanting and singing all increase heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is a measure of the balance between the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases the heart rate and increases the relaxation response via the vagus nerve. Singing produces slow, regular and deep respiration causing a pulsating vagal activity. Singing can be viewed as initiating the work of a vagal pump, sending relaxing waves through the choir. Singing at the top of your lungs also makes you work the muscles at the back of your throat – activating the vagus nerve. All the more reason to sing in the shower, or literally anywhere!
Khoff, B. V., Malmgren, H., Åström, R., Nyberg, G., Ekström, S. R., Engwall, M., … Jörnsten, R. (2013). Music structure determines heart rate variability of singersmusic structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(JUL), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334
Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that promotes vagal tone. Similar to singing, yoga breathing and guided breathing have beneficial effects on switching to our “rest and digest” state. A 12-week yoga study was conducted to assess shifts in mood and anxiety levels vs a group that did walking exercises. The yoga group showed a significant improvement in mood and decreased anxiety during the 12-week intervention compared to the walking group. Such observations support the hypothesis that part of the effect of yoga is vagal activation by slower breath rates often used during yoga posture techniques, but not during walking.
Streeter, C. C., Gerbarg, P. L., Saper, R. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical Hypotheses, 78(5), 571–579. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021
Streeter, C. C., Theodore, H. W., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S. K., Yakhkind, A., … Jensen, J. E. (2010). Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: A randomized controlled MRS study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11), 1145–1152. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2010.0007
4. Deep breathing exercises
Conscious breathing is the key to stimulating your vagus nerve. Slowing down breathing – Slowing down exhalation phase promotes dominance of the parasympathetic system. Through deep breathing we improve or vagal tone which has a strong effect on heart rate variability.
Singh, U. P. (2017). Evidence-Based Role of Hypercapnia and Exhalation Phase in Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Insights into Hypercapnic Yoga Breathing Exercises. Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy, 07(03). https://doi.org/10.4172/2157-7595.1000276
Bonaz, B., Sinniger, V., & Pellissier, S. (2016). Vagal tone: Effects on sensitivity, motility, and inflammation. Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 28(4), 455–462. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.12817
Laugher has been shown to increase heart rate variability thus decreasing the heart rate and increasing the relaxation response via the vagus nerve.
“Empirical research on laughter supports this folk wisdom, showing that laughter can have a variety of psychological and physiological health benefits, including improved coping skills, enhanced mood and feelings of well-being, decreased discomfort, and a higher pain tolerance as well as reduced neuroimmune and stress markers. Considering the variety of health benefits, humor might be an excellent clinical intervention.”
Dolgoff-Kaspar, R., Baldwin, A., Scott Johnson, M., Edling, N., & Sethi, G. K. (2012). Effect of laughter yoga on mood and heart rate variability in patients awaiting organ transplantation: A pilot study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 18(5), 61–66.
6. Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy
A study has found that magnetic fields are capable of stimulating the vagus nerve. The effects of PEMF on the human autonomic nervous system were found to be significant using heart rate variability measurements. In a study on 30 healthy men, pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy increases heart rate variability and vagus stimulation.
Grote, V., Lackner, H., Kelz, C., Trapp, M., Aichinger, F., Puff, H., & Moser, M. (2007). Short-term effects of pulsed electromagnetic fields after physical exercise are dependent on autonomic tone before exposure. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 101(4), 495–502. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-007-0520-x
Acupuncture has been demonstrated to directly or indirectly modulate parasympathetic nervous system activity through the vagus nerve. Acupuncture influences vagus nerve activity, whether directly through direct stimulation of its auricular branches or indirectly through reflex activation. Acupuncture has neuromodulatory effects on the autonomic nervous system, which can be used clinically to normalize autonomic balance and potentially favorably alter the course of disease.
Da Silva, M. A. H., & Dorsher, P. T. (2014). Neuroanatomic and clinical correspondences: Acupuncture and vagus nerve stimulation. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(4), 233–240. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2012.1022