The Vagus Nerve: Why It’s So Important + 8 Ways to Improve Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve: Why it's so important And 7 Ways To Strengthen It

The vagus nerve, also called 10th cranial nerve, is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves, and one of the most important nerves in your body.

Let me explain why. The word "vagus" actually means "wandering" in Latin—and that's exactly what the vagus nerve does.

It has an average of 100,000 parasympathetic nerve fibres that connect your brain with almost every organ in your body.

The vagus nerve is the primary component of your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest, or feed and breed response), and as a consequence plays a key role in your heart rate, breathing rate, digestion, detoxification and much more.

The key thing to remember is that when your body is in stress mode (the sympathetic, fight or flight response), and for many people this is most of the time, the parasympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system isn't a priority. And those crucial daily tasks like digesting, detoxing and resting will be severely compromised.

Your parasympathetic state must be active to be able to function well.

Vagal tone reflects the level of parasympathetic activity and your body’s ability to successfully respond to stress, adverse life events, and environmental conditions.


Higher vagal tone is linked to an increased resilience to stress, reduced allostatic load (the amount of stress you accumulate over time), less anxiety, and healthier emotional, physical and mental well-being.


The Gut-Brain Axis & Vagus Nerve 

The enteric nervous system (ENS), which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve.

This is known as the gut-brain axis and is like a highway with a two-way signaling channel, where the vagus nerve relays messages in both directions.

Eighty percent of the information transmitted via the vagus nerve travels from the body to the brain, and twenty percent from the brain to the body.

Surprising, isn't it, when you discover that your stomach has more to say for itself than your brain, so to speak.

One of the most interesting roles of the vagus nerve is that it activates the gut microbiome. This activation initiates a response to modulate inflammation and effects on your brain and behaviour, based on whether or not it detects pathogenic vs non-pathogenic organisms and the overall health of your microbiome population.

Poor vagus nerve function explains why stress impacts our gut health so much. When you have strong vagal tone you are more likely to:

  • produce gastric juices, stomach acid and digestive enzymes
  • have good peristalsis (wave-like muscle movement) throughout your GI tract
  • benefit from a thriving microbiome community in your gut
  • experience regulation of intestinal permeability by tight junctions to prevent inflammatory responses
  • enjoy optimal nutrient uptake

Measuring Vagal Tone

One of the best ways to measure your vagal tone is by tracking your heart rate variability (HRV). This is the time between each beat per minute and how much variation and time.

This can fluctuate but a high HRV is an indication of healthy vagal nerve function.

High vagal tone correlates with high HRV and means, as I've already mentioned good adaptability to stress.

8 Ways To Improve Vagal Tone 

Now you know more about the vagus nerve and why it's so important to your health, what can you do to improve vagal tone?

1. Incorporate aerobic exercise into your week

Incorporate and challenge your cardiovascular activity within your limits. This is a great way to improve your HRV and vagal tone. Physiological changes in your muscles and bones can happen immediately with aerobic activity.

While walking in nature can be wonderfully calming, you need to be getting out of breath to improve your adaptability to stress and strengthen your vagal nerve function.

If you struggle to exercise due to fatigue, start with just 2 or 3 minutes a day. Wait 24 hours and if you’re ok (in terms of muscle aches, energy etc…) do the same the following day, and then build it up gradually week by week.

It’s really important to incorporate some intensity into your activity. Essentially, this is high intensity interval training (HIIT). For example, walk for a couple of minutes, then run for one minute. The key is to find your cardio activity sweet spot. If you overdo the length and intensity of your session, you’ll likely have issues with electrolyte imbalance and muscle strain.

To give you an example of how good cardio is for strengthening vagal tone and healing – I worked with a professional footballer who was struggling with an injury for 4 months. Usual recovery time from the injury he suffered is about 12 months.

From an exercise perspective he stretched and did strengthening work, neither of which really had any impact on speed of recovery, but when he returned to cardio training his injury healed almost instantly.

Even though stretching and strengthening are a vital part of any rehab programme, I can't help but think that his speedy recovery had something to do with the aerobic activity increasing vagal tone. Of course it's crucial to also work within your physical capacity.

2. Improve your posture and correct muscle imbalance

Even something as simple as bad posture can negatively impact the vagus nerve. Poor posture along with muscle imbalances (when two or more muscles in the body that oppose each other are disproportionate) can also cause the vagus nerve to misfire.

Posture while eating affects how the enteric nervous system digests food. Slouching can cause peristaltic waves to be irregular and may even lock food in one place of the digestive system, causing irritation.

Something else, stooped forward posture displaces and compresses thoracic and abdominal organs – such as the heart, lungs, stomach and diaphragm. It also compresses the nerves that run between spinal segments which can include irritation of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is responsible for the normal contractions of the upper and lower esophageal sphincters.

If everything is operating well the sphincter will open to allow food to pass from the esophagus (the “food tube” connecting the mouth to the stomach) into the stomach and then closes to prevent backflow of food and stomach acid back up the esophagus.

When the vagus nerve is compressed and irritated, the sphincters do not operate correctly and instead, remain partially open. This allows the reflux of stomach acid, which is responsible for symptoms like heart burn.

Any improvements you can make to your posture to include keeping your muscles balanced and free from tension will help to prevent irritation of the vagus nerve and any subsequent health impact.

Things like yoga, massage, and making sure you're ergonomically set up correctly at your computer, will all help to increase vagal tone.

3. Eliminate excess sugar from your diet

We don’t tend to associate sugar with the nervous system, but over consumption of sugar is one of the worst things for it.

Research shows that the vagus nerve relays signals from the periphery of our body to our brain to help regulate glucose. This connection with glucose metabolism explains why vagus nerve stimulation reduces insulin resistance.

Problems with insulin resistance can suppress part of the vagus nerve in the liver, dysregulate the digestive tract and contribute to parasitic activity, as well as reducing defence against bad bacteria in the GI tract. This in its own way places stress on the body and contributes to chronic inflammatory processes.

If the vagus nerve is strong and functioning well it can dampen the stress and inflammation, but if it’s weak this won't happen.

If you don’t want to have inflammation associated with excess sugar the obvious thing to do is to reduce your sugar intake.

But when the body has already been damaged reducing sugar intake alone is not enough. Strengthening your vagus nerve too will help you considerably to improve metabolism.

Remember it’s not actually the sugar that’s a problem, it’s the excess sugar. The amount of sugar you can get away with depends on how well you self-regulate sugar. And this includes simple carbohydrates like pasta, rice and bread.

4. Avoid eating foods that don't agree with you 

Food sensitivities or intolerances may be throwing your autonomic nervous system out of balance.

Knowing what foods upset your gut like gluten, caffeine or dairy, and avoiding them will help to support a healthy parasympathetic response.

When you eat something that doesn’t agree with you it automatically raises those "fight or flight" sympathetic state alarm bells.

And butterflies or stomach pains aren’t the only sign that something has triggered an immune system response within your body.

5. Prioritise deep restorative sleep

One of the best ways to tune up your body is through sleep. Deep restorative sleep is like the gym for your vagus nerve.

If you don’t sleep well vagal nerve tone deteriorates faster. Your digestion, breathing and hormones don’t work so well when you’ve lost the connection with your circadian rhythm - the cyclical 24-hour period of human biological activity.

Studies show that sleeping on your right side increases your HRV. Experiment - see what you notice when you change your sleeping position and how it affects your breathing.

6. Feel & process your emotions effectively

Eighty percent of vagus nerve input is sensory and comes from the gut, heart, lungs, and information you allow in from the external world. So a gut feeling is a very real experience.

And what doesn’t get emotionalised gets physicalised. When you disconnect from your body's emotional signals you go into survival mode (e.g. defending and protecting) which throws you into the sympathetic, "fight and flight" state, shutting down digestion, immunity and spiking blood sugar.

To prevent flicking the “stress state” switch on in the body, pause for a moment and connect with what’s going on at the time.

Experience the whole range of what you feel mostly through body sensation, as this is what connects us with the feeling.

You should be able to feel and process the emotion flowing through you. For example, heat in your chest and upward when you’re embarrassed or angry.

Always connect with the feeling you’re aware of at the time, rather than ignoring it or settling with the “avoidance” feeling, that can be a default response to being at ease with specific emotional triggers. If you opt for the latter, you're not feeling and processing the emotion.

I totally get it that this isn’t easy, but it's a big deal. For the sake of your health and wellbeing you really want to be able to process emotion effectively.

One mind-body health practice that I use with clients to help them overcome negative self-talk and beliefs, and effect behavioural change (which is so often the thorn in the rose that’s holding them back from getting the health results they really want), are Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) .

This practice helps to balance the autonomic nervous system by affecting the energetic flow of information in the body, so you can correctly judge and connect with what’s going on in your environment.

Not only does it rapidly reduce cortisol levels, but it also helps you to process emotion effectively and change behavioural responses.

Unprocessed emotion from past events in life can hold you back from optimal health and wellness. Even though you know what you need to do, that in itself doesn’t always get results.

7. Experiment with cold therapy

When done on a consistent basis, studies show that cold therapy can activate the vagus nerve, as well as various neurons on the vagus nerve pathway, causing a shift to parasympathetic nervous system activity.

Cold therapy ideas:

  • Submerge your body up to your shoulders in cold water, like cold-water sea, a cold-water swimming pool or a cold-water bath.
  • Splash cold water on your face.
  • Apply a cold washcloth to your face.
  • End your shower with 60 seconds of cold water.

8. Engage in breathing exercises daily

Slow rhythmic breathing exercises especially nasal breathing with longer exhales is perfect for vagus nerve activation.

Alternate nostril breathing, and diaphragmatic belly breathing with a deep inhale and a long, slow exhale will stimulate the vagus nerve, slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure and stress hormones.


If you found this post helpful or have any vagus nerve or vagal toning experiences that you'd like to share, please do so in the comments below.



  1. Bethany Stringham on September 27, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    This is amazing information! Thank you!

    • Nicola on September 28, 2020 at 2:10 pm

      Thanks Bethany! I’m so glad the information has been helpful to you.

    • Liza on March 24, 2022 at 4:46 pm

      Wow, awesome, informative info. So glad I saw this post, going to really get more educated about this.

      • Nicola on March 25, 2022 at 9:18 am

        Thank you Liza. Great – go for it!

  2. Amanda on October 16, 2020 at 1:07 am

    I was physically assaulted two and a half years ago and I nearly died. Several months later, I began having bouts of Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome twice a week. A year and a half later I’ve learned about this nerve and that being in a constant state of “fight or flight” following the attack may have caused this nerve to be damaged. I hope these tips will help improve things until my body/mind finally shifts out of “Fight/Flight” mode as I believe it’s also causing or contributing other ongoing problems I’ve been having like diverticulitis and (newly developed) abdominal migraines.

    • Nicola on October 18, 2020 at 9:54 am

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience Amanda. Thank you for sharing it with us. A massive well done for taking steps to deepen your understanding of what’s happening in your body, and ways in which you can improve your overall health.

    • Jesus M Acosta on January 13, 2021 at 6:01 pm

      Thank you so much. This has been a game changer for me. 2020 was no joke. I was in and out of the doctor’s office for a flutter feeling in my chest area. It would keep me up and everything spiraled down from there. Wore a Holter monitor for 48 hours with no heart issue detected. Underwent an endoscopy with nothing found. GI doctor wanted to put me on PPI medicine but I declined. I asked him if there was a more natural way and he said no. I did research and also came upon your information. I’m feeling great. Your information was extremely helpful. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart. Jesus Acosta

      • Nicola on January 13, 2021 at 6:41 pm

        That’s great to hear Jesus. Not easy, but well done for overcoming your health challenges.

        • Fatma on April 13, 2021 at 3:45 am

          Interesting article. Does the vagus nerve get cut if a person has a heart bypass? If yes, what happens then?

          • Nicola on April 13, 2021 at 4:56 pm

            Hi Fatma, it’s very unlikely but I can’t answer this for sure as it’s all down to the surgeon performing the operation.

  3. Mishawn Robinson on April 12, 2021 at 5:44 am

    I believe I have trouble with my vagus nerve do to Hiatial hernia/GERD acid reflux Diagnose. I wake up at night with blood pressure and pulse elevated. But sometimes I can feel beating in my chest with out my blood pressure being elevated.
    I have spoken to my doctor and she said she doesn’t think it’s my vagus nerves but I believe it is due to my hiatal hernia.

    I have tried everything. I have lost weight, changed my diet to pretty much a plant base diet with chicken and fish. I seen a GI and exercise but I need to do more exercising. My Gi have done colonoscopy and Endoscopy only to find acid, Hiatial hernia and ulcerative proctitis in my rectum. He put me on Mesalamine suppository.
    I take acid reflux meds in the morning and tums at night.
    I take vitamins and drink only water every day.
    It is just a quick fixes. I need a permanent solution.
    What kind of doctor should I see for a Vagus nerve problem? Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

    • Nicola on April 13, 2021 at 4:51 pm

      Hello Mishawn, you are doing well, but it sounds like you could benefit further from working with a Functional Medicine Specialist. It’s all about uncovering the root cause of your issues and then giving your body what it needs to heal and be healthier as I’m sure you know. I can help with both vagus nerve and gut health issues, so do feel free to contact me if you would like to explore this option at

  4. Jean Beswick on May 8, 2021 at 6:57 pm

    Hello Nicola I have a real problem now as I had my Vagus Nerve cut (a Vagotomy) and partial Gastrectomy in 1971 when I was very young. This was because I had been diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer. This, apparently, was the new operation. I have now found out during the last couple of weeks that they now realise how much we need the Vagus Nerve for many other things. A duodenal ulcer can now be treated with antibiotics!
    I have had a terrible time over the last 10 years collapsing and passing out after eating. This has happened when out with friends and is very frightening and embarrassing. I have been to Doctors who just send me away saying they don’t know why this is happening. Lost a lot of weight as I am frightened of eating so many things. There suddenly seems to be people talking about the Vagus nerve which is good but I think too late to help me. Kind Regards Jean

    • Nicola on May 10, 2021 at 9:11 am

      Hello Jean, Thank you for sharing your story. Practising breathing exercises and following a simple diet should help. It’s unfortunate that you had the vagotomy but you can still support your vagus nerve as much as possible to try and minimise irritation. I recommend checking out this post –
      It’s amazing how much impact your breath can have on your nervous system. All the best, Nicola

  5. Nicola RB on May 13, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Hi Nicola,

    Thanks so much for all this information – quick question, can compression on this nerve cause vertigo? I’ve had vertigo for 8 weeks now, seen many specialists and have had 4 conflicting diagnosis’s. Brain MRI is fine. I’m starting to realise I have neck pain so I’ve booked a session with chiropractor and I’m very sure that it’s some kind of compression going on.
    Thanks a lot!

    • Nicola on May 13, 2021 at 5:08 pm

      Hi Nic, It’s my pleasure. Yes – cervical neck instability can put pressure on the nerve. I hope you get a resolve with the chiropractor. Good luck! Nicola

  6. Marcey on May 25, 2021 at 11:45 am

    Great article with a wealth of information. I have a Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS) for epilepsy. It’s a device implanted in my chest that has wires leading up to my vagal nerve and those wires have electrodes. I have a magnet I can swipe over the chest implant to activate it to prevent seizures based on my doctors settings. It is set to go off at a low level every 5 minutes for 30 seconds for seizure prevention. This causes my voice to sound like I’m talking through a fan and a tightness in my throat. I’ve gotten used to it. When I activate the VNS at the onset of a seizure it is set to go off much stronger. I can feel my voice change, my face tense up, my left lung tighten and I cough, and my stomach hurts. Sometimes my heart rate increases it that could just be the seizure activity itself??? It’s very interesting how the VNS/vagal nerve can have so much control. Some patients with depression report that the VNS improves or cures their depression. I measured my HRV for a little bit and it’s averaging 38. Do you think the VNS is playing a part in my HRV?
    I am a Veteran and I have a ton of health issues. I am going to look into increasing my HRV and see if that will help. Thanks for the great info!

    • Nicola on May 26, 2021 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks for sharing your story Marcey. It’s great that you have a VNS to help prevent seizures. Yes I do think it is playing a part in your HRV. Check out the below study which shows that VNS increased the complexity of HRV during sleep and decreased it during wakefulness.

  7. Gianfranco on December 9, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    Thank you Nicola for sharing such a relevant article.

    I tend to have a long digestion time, up to 9 hours from my meal, and also tend to experience, after 7 hours from it, subtle pains in the stomach and much air in it, .

    I have noticed that, by consistently practicing, after 6 hours from my meal, the following breathing method, the digestion gets completed sooner, and without stomach pains.

    1 cycle
    Exhale 15″
    Hold 35″
    Inhale 5″
    Hold 10″
    Repetition of 25 cycles

    I would appreciate your feedback about this breathing method and to know if, by gradually extending the “Holding pause” after exhalation, the health of vagus nerve may further benefit.

    • Nicola on December 11, 2023 at 6:21 pm

      Hello Gian,
      So pleased to hear that you’ve found a breathing technique that is helping with your digestion. A longer exhale and hold compared to inhale and hold is supporting parasympathetic dominance and therefore vagus nerve activation. So in answer to your question, yes regular practice of this breathing method will likely benefit the health of the vagus nerve.

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Meet Nicola - blog posts

Meet Nicola

Hello, I'm a Holistic Nutritionist, Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner, Breathwork Instructor and Pain & Stress Management Therapist with heaps of experience of helping others tweak and transform their health and life. 

Let's work together to optimise how you look, feel and function for better health and wellness.

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