3 Ways To Fire Up The Vagus Nerve & Stimulate Immunity, From An MD
In the thick of a global pandemic, many of us are trying to discover how we can support our immune systems. There are plenty of avenues to consider (think foods, herbs, supplements, and mindful movement, to name a few), but according to Harvard medical director Jeffrey Rediger, M.D., the concept is simple: "We have all these immune cells who want to do their jobs properly; we just need to give them the right conditions," he tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Our bodies are on our side—we just have to help them out a bit.
While optimizing immunity is no easy feat, there is a scientifically backed way to set the stage: firing up the vagus nerve. Because this nerve runs from the base of the brain through the neck and branches out in the chest all the way down to the abdomen, it touches almost all of our major organs. Long story short, stimulating this nerve is important, and it's a crucial way to support immunity. The best part? You don't need anything other than your own body (and mind) to get started.
In fact, stimulating this nerve is actually easier than you think; here, Rediger offers three ways to fire up the vagus nerve so you can focus on strengthening your immune system:
Relax for your body and mind.
"Most of us live in chronic fight, flight, or freeze without realizing we're doing so," Rediger explains. Think about it: Even when you're sitting in traffic or completing seemingly mundane activities, your mind might be spiraling down a rabbit hole of what-ifs. And according to Rediger, managing inflammation starts with learning how to manage our stress.
He's not the first to tell us that stress has an impact on our immune systems: Many experts agree on how stress can increase your susceptibility to infections. But Rediger says that the physiology of the fight, flight, or freeze response differs from the actual physiology of the vagus nerve. Meaning, when we undergo a stress response, our bodies physically take a hit: "On the basis of research, your immune cells become numb and not only work inefficiently but work incorrectly," Rediger explains. "They'll make mistakes and not work properly." Rather, when you stimulate the vagus nerve, your immune system physically works more efficiently to fight off viruses.
The good news is, there are plenty of tried-and-true ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and lower the stress response (breathwork, meditation, and gratitude, to name a select few); find what helps your mind wind down and lean into that work—trust Rediger; it's worth it.
Create genuine connections.
We're pretty familiar with the slew of benefits social connection has on immunity, but add vagal stimulation to the mix. "When you make genuine connections with someone, your body lights up with oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin—molecules your immune cells love and cause them to work crisply and efficiently," Rediger explains.
We typically associate those molecules with love, but Rediger says that you can experience this rush without even knowing a person well. After all, we're wired as human beings to be social with one another, whether it's a family member on FaceTime, a grocery cashier, or the person handing you your morning coffee: "If its a genuine connection where you have space in your heart for them as a human being, your physiology will be better off for it." Just a smile can go a long way.
In fact, smiling may be what's stimulating your vagus nerve in the first place. "When we smile, and our eyes light up as we make eye contact, the vagus nerve is making that connection with your eye muscles," Rediger says. There's research to back it up, too: During one study on the effects of vagus nerve stimulation on children with epilepsy1, researchers found that one of the side effects is uncontrollable laughter. While that's not the desired side effect in a clinical setting, it does show that laughter is associated with an increase in vagal stimulation.
Faith and prayer.
Faith and prayer also have the ability to stimulate the vagus nerve—it just depends on quality. First up: "Faith is an important antidote to the stress response," Rediger mentions, and we know well by now that lowering our stress can increase vagal stimulation (and thereby enhance immunity). So perhaps add faith to the list of ways to manage your stress, if you find that works for you, and the benefits may work twofold.
But in terms of prayer, Rediger mentions, it becomes a little tricky. That's because half the existing studies on prayer tout its benefits, while other studies disagree. The truth is, according to Rediger, both studies may require a second approach—a more qualitative approach, that is.
Think of prayer like meditation, he explains. "There is a massive difference in brain scans between new meditators and advanced meditators. There's highly likely a similar thing going on with prayer." What he means is, someone can stimulate their vagus nerve quite a lot from prayer, as long as they understand and embrace prayer as a valuable force, whereas someone who is new to prayer might not receive a significant vagal response. So, yes, prayer can fire up the vagus nerve, as long as you embrace the power it has.
The bottom line is, firing up your vagus nerve doesn't take hours upon hours of meditation and inner work (although, those certainly won't hurt if you've got the time). Rather, it's quite easy to enhance your nervous system and snap out of that fight, flight, or freeze zone: According to this Harvard medical director, all it takes is a little mindfulness.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.