I talk a lot about the vagus nerve and how it’s one of the most important—and overlooked—keys to whole-body health. Unfortunately, right now, millions of people around the world suffer from low vagal tone. And the results are downright catastrophic.
So today I’m going to tell you all about vagal tone, why it’s important, and how you can strengthen it to reverse a variety of common—but serious—symptoms, including brain fog, chronic stress, gut sensitivity, high levels of inflammation, and poor immune function.
Of course, we can’t talk about vagal tone without first mentioning the vagus nerve.
As a refresher, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve your body. It begins at the bottom of your brain stem, travels along both sides of your neck, through the chest, and ends at the abdomen. This one nerve touches every major organ, ultimately linking your brain to your heart, lungs, throat, and gut.
Think of your vagus nerve as your body’s neurochemical “superhighway”—carrying signals between the brain and your vital organs. One of the most important of these signals determines whether your body goes on high alert or remains calm.
When you’re stressed or frightened, your vagus nerve signals for your sympathetic nervous system to rev into high gear. Think of it as the gas pedal of a car. This part of your nervous systems heightens your awareness and prepares your body to go into “fight or flight” mode. Chemicals like adrenaline course through your body.
When your body is calm, your parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) system is dominant. Think of it as the brake pedal on a car. Achieving this state is ideal as it reduces stress, regulates your blood pressure, and slows your heart rate. It also helps the body focus on healing.
The autonomic nervous system and its two branches: the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) and sympathetic (“fight or flight”) systems. IMAGE SOURCE: iStock.com
Now that you have a better understanding of your vagus nerve and your nervous system, let’s discuss how your vagal tone plays a role in your body.
Your vagal tone is a measure of how fast your body reverts from your sympathetic nervous system back to your parasympathetic system.
In other words, it measures how well you bounce back after a stressful event.
When your vagal tone is strong, your parasympathetic nervous system can return your body to a calm state quickly and easily.
The higher the vagal tone, the better your body is at reaching that ideal resting state.
Recently, scientists made some fascinating discoveries on vagal tone’s effects on health and aging.
In a recent study, a team of researchers measured the vagal tone of a group of adults age 50 and over. Over the course of nearly two years, they found that those with higher vagal tone consistently and overwhelmingly outlived those with low vagal tone.
IMAGE SOURCE: International Journal of Cardiology
And there are plenty of reasons for this. According to health journalist Gaia Vince, people with high vagal tone are not just healthier, “They’re also socially and psychologically stronger—happier, better able to concentrate and remember things, more empathetic, less prone to depression, and more likely to have close friendships.”
Vince adds that high vagal tone has also been linked to blood glucose regulation, which reduces risk for diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
But when it comes to low vagal tone, it appears that the direct opposite is true. Low vagal tone can send your most crucial bodily processes out of balance in countless ways…
If your vagal tone is too low, it can cause a laundry list of health issues, negatively affecting your:
Low vagal tone has been linked to chronic inflammation—one of the prime underlying factors associated with the development of chronic disease.
And like many biological functions, your vagal tone decline with age.
So it’s crucial to take action before you start experiencing problems. And although there isn’t much you can do to stop aging, there are plenty of ways you can reverse low vagal tone, completely naturally.
But before I talk how you can improve your vagal tone, how can you determine whether yours is low to begin with?
A doctor can determine your vagal tone with an electrocardiogram (or EKG). This is a simple, pain-free test that measures your heart rate.
Every time you inhale, your heart beats faster to speed up the flow of oxygenated blood throughout your body. And when you breathe out, your heart rate slows.
This is called your heart rate variability and it’s one of the most important factors regulated by the vagus nerve.
So the bigger the difference in your heart rate variability (your inhalation heart rate versus your exhalation heart rate), the higher your vagal tone.
The chart below illustrates an average HRV based on age:
Clearly, your HRV rapidly declines with age.
Generally speaking, most people between 20 and 25 years old have a HRV between 55 and 105 milliseconds, while a majority of people 60 to 65 years old mostly range between 25 to 45 milliseconds.
Yours may be higher or lower depending on factors like stress, fitness level, lifestyle, environment, and genetics. Your doctor can tell you what is an ideal range based on your age and medical history.
Another way to check your HRV at home is to buy a heart monitor (Polar or Wahoo are reasonably priced and reputable brands) and download the free mobile app, Elite HRV.
Keep in mind, these technologies are still relatively new and only intended for personal use. Your results should never act as a replacement for personal medical advice. However, the heart monitors can provide a more accurate picture of your HRV than calculating your heart rate yourself.
The good news is, if you do have low vagal tone, there are some very easy ways to immediately boost it. And, in turn, improving your vagal tone can improve your resilience to stress and restore balance throughout your entire body.
Below are five simple techniques to get you started:
Remember, strengthening your vagal tone is not just a “one and done” activity—nor is it necessary to carve an extra hour out of your day to do this.
Simply aim to integrate a few of the suggestions above throughout your day, and you’ll strengthen your vagal tone with very little “extra” effort.
6 Ways to Instantly Stimulate Your vagus Nerve to Relieve Inflammation, Depression, Migraines, and More. (n.d.). The International Alliance of Healthcare Educators. Retrieved from: iahe.com/docs/articles/6_Ways_to_Instantly_Stimulate_Your_Vagus_Nerve_to_Relieve_Inflammation.pdf
Barretto, A. et al. (2009). Increased muscle sympathetic nerve activity predicts mortality in heart failure patients. International Journal of Cardiology. 135; 3: pp 302 – 307. Retrieved from: sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167527308005275
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A. Rogler, G., and Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers of Psychiatry. 9:44. Retrieved from:
Fallis, J. (2017). How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health. University of Ottawa. Retrieved from: sass.uottawa.ca/sites/sass.uottawa.ca/files/how_to_stimulate_your_vagus_nerve_for_better_mental_health_1.pdf
Understanding the Vagus Nerve & Increasing Vagal Tone. (2019). Osea Malibu.com. Retrieved from: oseamalibu.com/blogs/wellness-blog/understanding-the-vagus-nerve
Van Deusen, M. (2019). Everything You Need to Know About Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Whoop.com. Retrieved from: whoop.com/the-locker/heart-rate-variability-hrv/
Vince, G. (2015). Hacking the nervous system. Mosaic. Retrieved from: mosaicscience.com/story/hacking-nervous-system/
Vince, G. (2014). Think yourself healthy. Technologist. Retrieved from: technologist.eu/think-yourself-healthy/
Why vagal tone is so important. (2016). Melt Method. Retrieved from: meltmethod.com/blog/vagus-nerve/