Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve (2022)

Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve (1)

Vagus nerve in yellow.

Source: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock

Two years ago, I published a nine-part series, "The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide to Combat Fight-or-Flight Urges." The genesis came from an "Aha!" moment when I noticed a pattern of diverse scientific literature published by researchers correlating unexpected lifestyle factors (e.g., positive social connections (Kok et al., 2013), narrative expressive writing (Bourassa et al., 2017), and self-distancing (Grossman et al., 2016)) with improved heart rate variability (HRV).

This post is a follow-up to "Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve," from that earlier series of posts. I'm excited to update what was primarily speculation a few years ago with some new scientific literature (Gerritsen & Band, 2018 and De Couck et al., 2019). These studies corroborate that longer exhalations are an easy way to hack the vagus nerve, combat fight-or-flight stress responses, and improve HRV.

What is HRV? Heart rate variability represents the healthy fluctuation in beat-to-beat intervals of a human or animal's heart rate. During the inhalation phase of a breathing cycle, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) facilitates a brief acceleration of heart rate; during exhalation, the vagus nerve secretes a transmitter substance (ACh) which causes deceleration within beat-to-beat intervals via the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

HRV is used to index the robustness of someone's vagus nerve responses and vagal tone (VT). Higher HRV is associated with stronger vagus nerve function, lower chronic stress levels, better overall health, and improved cognition.

Although clinical research on HRV doesn't always discuss the vagus nerve, it's well established that HRV is an effective way to index vagal tone and gauge the robustness of someone's physiological ability to counteract SNS-driven fight-or-flight stress responses.

Nota bene: I grew up in a household with a neuroscientist father, Richard Bergland (1932-2007), who was also the author of The Fabric of Mind. My dad idolized Nobel-prize winner Otto Loewi (1873-1961), who discovered the first neurotransmitter (acetylcholine), which is the chief neurotransmitter of the PNS. What we now refer to as acetylcholine or ACh was originally coined "vagusstoff" (German for "vagus substance") by Loewi around 1921.

(Video) How to Extend Your Exhale. Are You Supposed to Blow Out ALL the Air?! PNS-Rest & Digest-Vagus Nerve

In a simple but elegant experiment on frogs (that came to Loewi as a Eureka! moment in a dream), he found that a tranquilizing substance squirted directly out of the vagus nerve onto the heart, which caused a frog's heart rate to slow down immediately. (See, "How Does 'Vagusstoff' Calm Us Down?")

Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve (2)

Diagram of the frog heart preparation used by Otto Loewi. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) slows heart rate while accelerator (sympathetic nervous system) nerve stimulation speeds up heart rate.

Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

As a tennis player, my father used the same breathing techniques he used in his neurosurgery operating room to stay calm. He taught me the basics of how to use deep, slow breathing techniques to hack the vagus nerve and slow down my heart rate, just like a frog in Loewi's lab.

Dad kept his neuroscience lessons on the tennis court simple. He'd say, "If you want to maintain grace under pressure, visualize squirting some vagusstoff into your nervous system by taking a deep breath—with a big inhale and a long, slow exhale—as you bounce the ball four times before every serve."

Without going into too much detail, my father taught me that by increasing the duration of my exhale after taking a deep breath, I could trigger my vagus nerve to squirt out some stress-busting "vagusstoff" on demand. This "stuff" was like a self-made tranquilizer that would relax my nerves and help me avoid choking or double-faulting during match points.

THE BASICS

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Later, as a student at Hampshire College, I practiced yoga regularly and was guided by an instructor who also emphasized the importance of focusing on the inhalation/exhalation ratio during yogic breathing exercises. Although he didn't mention anything to do with neurobiology or psychophysiology, it was clear that many of my instructor's breathing techniques emphasized longer exhalations, just like my father had taught me.

Based solely on life experience, I saw a parallel and had a hunch that these centuries-old methods of shifting the inhalation/exhalation ratio that often had long-winded Sanskrit names such as "bhastrika pranayama" were ancient vagal maneuvers unwittingly designed to hack the vagus nerve long before Otto Loewi discovered vagusstoff.

It's reassuring to have fresh research corroborate that each of us can trigger a "relaxation response" (Benson et al., 1975) simply by focusing on the inhalation-to-exhalation ratio of our breathing and consciously extending the length of each exhale while doing breathing exercises as we go about our day-to-day lives.

Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve (5)

Early anatomical drawing of the "wandering" vagus nerve.

Source: Wellcome Library/Public Domain

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New Research Identifies Multiple Benefits of Longer Exhalations

In 2018, Roderik Gerritsen and Guido Band of Leiden University in the Netherlands published a detailed theoretical review, "Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity," in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This review presents a wide range of studies that illustrate how slower respiration rates and longer exhalations phasically and tonically stimulate the vagus nerve. Using diaphragmatic breathing techniques to kickstart the calming "rest and digest" influence of the parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as respiratory vagus nerve stimulation (rVNS). (For more on traditional VNS and non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS) see here, here, here, and here.)

Throughout their paper, Gerritsen and Band explain how the latest research on rVNS fits into a historical timeline of other techniques used to harness runaway fight-or-flight stress responses and calm the autonomic nervous system. The authors write:

"The breathing techniques used in contemplative activities (e.g., meditation, yoga, tai chi) include, but are not restricted to, slowing down respiration cycles, shifting to longer exhalations compared to inhalations, shifting the main locus of respiration from the thorax to the abdomen (diaphragmatic breathing), or paying attention to "natural" breathing. Especially slow and deep breathing with emphasis on long exhalation is dominant across traditions, including zen and vipassana—though there are a few practices stimulating faster respiration patterns (i.e., the yoga technique "breath of fire"). The [vagus] nerve, as a proponent of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), is the prime candidate in explaining the effects of contemplative practices on health, mental health and cognition.

Frequently adopting these respiration patterns (slowed and with longer exhalations) can explain a significant part of the efficacy found within contemplative activity practice. Though contemplative activities are diverse, they have shown a similar pattern of beneficial effects on health, mental health, and cognition: mostly in stress-related conditions and performance. This pattern can be explained by these controlled breathing exercises.

Clearly, these functions all move the system towards the rest-and-digest mode of operation and away from fight-or-flight. Not only does [the] vagus nerve control heart rate and slow deep breathing; slow respiration rates with extended exhalation could also activate the PNS by vagus nerve afferent function in the airways. This is a form of respiratory biofeedback. Slow breathing techniques with long exhalation will signal a state of relaxation by the vagus nerve, resulting in more VN activity and further relaxation. Though VN involvement can explain the effects on health and mental health, the link with cognition is less clear. One of the links between respiration and cognition is HRV."

Another recent study (De Couck et al., 2019) published this month, "How Breathing Can Help You Make Better Decisions: Two Studies on the Effects of Breathing Patterns on Heart Rate Variability and Decision-Making in Business Cases," reports that just two minutes of deep breathing with longer exhalation engages the vagus nerve, increases HRV, and improves decision-making. These findings were published in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

This two-pronged study was conducted by researchers from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. The first arm of this study found that both slow deep "symmetric" breathing patterns (with an equal ratio of inhaling/exhalation timing) and skewed "vagus nerve" breathing patterns (with a longer exhalation than inhalation) significantly increased HRV.

Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve (6)

Source: WikiVisual/Creative Commons

(Video) Vagus Nerve Exercises for Relaxation

The second arm of this study asked one group of participants to perform two minutes of skewed vagus nerve breathing before taking a 30-minute decision-making test. The control group watched a video and did not focus on breathing patterns. Notably, participants in the group who focused on breathing patterns with longer exhalations for two minutes reported lower levels of stress and provided a significantly higher percentage of correct answers to business-related test questions than controls. The authors conclude, "These studies show that brief vagal breathing patterns reliably increase HRV and improve decision-making."

A myriad of breathing patterns can improve HRV. That said, based on the latest research, practicing rVNS breathing via longer exhalations for just two minutes appears to be an easy way to hack the vagus nerve and calm one's nervous system.

One gadget-free way to track the timing of your inhalation-to-exhalation breathing cycles per minute is to use a 4:8 ratio of four-second inhalations and eight-second exhalations. This breathing cycle takes 12 seconds which equates to five inhalation/exhalation cycles per minute. Based on road-tested outcomes, I really like the 4:8 ratio because it's easy to use my right hand to count up to five with each digit and use the fingers on my left hand like an abacus to keep track of each one-minute cycle.

Anytime you want to hack your vagus nerve to reduce stress or improve decision-making, a simple self-talk script could be: "I'm stressing out. In order to calm down so I can perform better on this decision-making task, I'm going to take two minutes (right now!) to do 10 rounds of vagus nerve breathing based on a 4:8 inhalation-to-exhalation ratio."

During the four-second inhalation phase, I'd recommend breathing in through your nose—as you relax the back of your eyes and visualize filling up your lower diaphragm with oxygen—and slowly count to four. Then, I'd recommend exhaling through pursed lips (as if you're blowing out lots of candles on a birthday cake) as you slowly count to eight.

Remember: If you're feeling especially stressed out, you can increase your rVNS breathing time to five minutes or a total of 25 twelve-second 4:8 breathing cycles. Repeat as needed.

LinkedIn Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock

FAQs

How do you hack vagus nerve? ›

Top 10 Vagus Nerve Hacks
  1. Cold exposure. Research shows that acute cold exposure activates the cholinergic neurons in your vagus nerve pathways, stimulating the nerve itself. ...
  2. Deep, slow breathing. ...
  3. Chanting, singing, humming, gargling and yawning. ...
  4. Visceral release. ...
  5. Meditation. ...
  6. Probiotics. ...
  7. Massage. ...
  8. Exercise.
30 May 2022

Why is longer exhale better? ›

Prolonged, Slow Exhales During Breathing Relaxes The Body

This causes a slight decrease in systemic blood pressure. To counteract this, the nervous system reflexively increases heart rate and constricts blood vessels. This is a sympathetic (fight or flight) response. The reverse is also true.

Is it better to exhale longer than inhale? ›

But even the simple act of counting as you breathe, slowing your breath in general and exhaling to a longer count than you inhale will make you calmer and better able to concentrate.

How can I stimulate my vagus nerve fast? ›

One of the main ways that you can stimulate the healthy function of the vagus nerve is through deep, slow belly breathing.
  1. Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute).
  2. Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale.
  3. Exhale longer than you inhale.
23 Jun 2020

Is there a pressure point for the vagus nerve? ›

In Chinese medicine, different parts of our body correlate with different specific reflexology or pressure points. The vagus nerve point for your hand is right inside of the pinky, for example. This is great because it's so accessible during the course of your day.

Can I stimulate my own vagus nerve? ›

The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (12).

Can too much oxygen cause anxiety? ›

Too much oxygen causes the pH of the blood to rise and become too alkaline. This is known as respiratory alkalosis. Symptoms can include anxiety, dizziness, dry mouth, tingling in the fingers and arms, chest pain or tremors.

What happens when exhale longer? ›

And we often mention that extending or lengthening the exhalation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, the Rest and Digest part of our nervous system's balancing program.

Does Box breathing activate the vagus nerve? ›

Benefits of box breathing

The slow holding of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood. An increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. This produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body.

How long should you exhale for? ›

Therapists often suggest the “365 method”: at least three times a day, breathe at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds inhaling, five seconds exhaling) for five minutes.

What is the most efficient way to breathe? ›

And Your Belly

Proper breathing starts in the nose and then moves to the stomach as your diaphragm contracts, the belly expands and your lungs fill with air. "It is the most efficient way to breathe, as it pulls down on the lungs, creating negative pressure in the chest, resulting in air flowing into your lungs."

Should you exhale completely? ›

Exhale the entire way out. Activate the entire middle self of your body; you should feel the area around your ribs narrowing. "You should feel like your entire middle is being wrung out," she said. Most people haven't exhaled deeply enough recently to get rid of stale air.

Does chewing gum stimulate the vagus nerve? ›

Harvard Medical School notes that chewing gum stimulates the vagus nerve, which has branches all throughout the body, including the bowels. That's why gum chewing might also be useful for abdominal surgery patients, as it may release hormones that stimulate bowel activity.

What aggravates the vagus nerve? ›

There are two main causes of vagus nerve dysfunction: previous infection or inflammation and physical or psychological stress.

What triggers the vagus nerve? ›

The vagal response is a series of unpleasant symptoms that occur when the vagus nerve is stimulated. Often, this response is triggered by certain things like stress, pain, and fear. Symptoms of the vagal response include dizziness, nausea, ringing ears, and sweating. In some cases, it can make you pass out.

Can foot massage stimulate the vagus nerve? ›

There are various vagus nerve reflexes (or acupressure points) mapped on the feet and Thai Foot Massage stimulates these areas increasing vagal activity. The stimulated vagus nerve prompts the release of oxytocin, and this hormone promotes relaxation, healthy digestion, and a sense of wellbeing.

How can I reset my vagus nerve? ›

Some of the most popular ones feature simple hacks to “tone” or “reset” the vagus nerve, in which people plunge their faces into ice water baths or lie on their backs with ice packs on their chests. There are also neck and ear massages, eye exercises and deep-breathing techniques.

Where do you massage the vagus nerve? ›

Targeted vagus nerve massages of the neck and shoulder area have been shown to improve vagal tone. Regular soft tissue massage of the shoulders has also been shown to improve vagal tone, so vagus nerve targeted massage may not be necessary.

Do cold showers stimulate vagus nerve? ›

Exposure to cold.

Exposing your body to acute cold conditions, such as taking a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face, increases stimulation of the vagus nerve. While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, while parasympathetic activity increases.

What is the basic exercise for the vagus nerve? ›

Vagus Nerve stimulation: The basic exercise

Lie on your back on the ground. Look with your eyes to the right until you sigh, swallow, or yawn, and then repeat on the other side. You may blink during the exercise.

What happens when the vagus nerve is overstimulated? ›

When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, the body's blood vessels dilate, especially those in the lower extremities, and the heart temporarily slows down. The brain is deprived of oxygen, causing the patient to lose consciousness.

How do you reset your vagus nerve? ›

Some of the most popular ones feature simple hacks to “tone” or “reset” the vagus nerve, in which people plunge their faces into ice water baths or lie on their backs with ice packs on their chests. There are also neck and ear massages, eye exercises and deep-breathing techniques.

What aggravates the vagus nerve? ›

There are two main causes of vagus nerve dysfunction: previous infection or inflammation and physical or psychological stress.

What can trigger the vagus nerve? ›

Vagal Response Triggers
  • Emotional stress.
  • Having blood drawn or the sight of blood.
  • Fear.
  • Gastrointestinal illness.
  • Having a bowel movement.
  • Heat.
  • Pain.
  • Standing for a long time.
21 Jan 2020

What are the symptoms of an irritated vagus nerve? ›

What are the signs of vagus nerve problems?
  • Abdominal pain and bloating.
  • Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD).
  • Changes to heart rate, blood pressure or blood sugar.
  • Difficulty swallowing or loss of gag reflex.
  • Dizziness or fainting.
  • Hoarseness, wheezing or loss of voice.
11 Jan 2022

Where do you massage the vagus nerve? ›

Targeted vagus nerve massages of the neck and shoulder area have been shown to improve vagal tone. Regular soft tissue massage of the shoulders has also been shown to improve vagal tone, so vagus nerve targeted massage may not be necessary.

What is the basic exercise for the vagus nerve? ›

Vagus Nerve stimulation: The basic exercise

Lie on your back on the ground. Look with your eyes to the right until you sigh, swallow, or yawn, and then repeat on the other side. You may blink during the exercise.

Does deep breathing stimulate the vagus nerve? ›

Deep, slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and lowers the heart rate, and this can be amplified through the rhythmic rising and falling of the belly during abdominal breathing. Try making your exhalations longer than your inhalations. Smile and be kind.

Which side of the neck is the vagus nerve on? ›

The vagus nerve is also noted as being the tenth cranial nerve (designated as CN X). The vagus nerve is actually a set of two nerves, a vagus nerve right side of the neck and a vagus nerve left side of the neck.

Can tight neck muscles affect vagus nerve? ›

Considering the course of the vagal nerve in the cervical region, it is thought that conditions such as stiffness, tightness and decreased elasticity in this region may compress the vagal nerve andmay affect vagal function.

Does yawning stimulate the vagus nerve? ›

If you yawn too much, this may be a sign of a vasovagal reaction--also known as vasovagal syncope, a common cause of fainting. The vagus nerve is located in your neck, chest and intestines. It regulates your heart and blood vessels. When it is stimulated, you begin to yawn excessively.

What happens when the vagus nerve is overstimulated? ›

When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, the body's blood vessels dilate, especially those in the lower extremities, and the heart temporarily slows down. The brain is deprived of oxygen, causing the patient to lose consciousness.

What does hitting the vagus nerve do? ›

You Have Been Warned: Vagus Nerve - YouTube

Does humming stimulate the vagus nerve? ›

Humming stimulates your vagus nerve

Because your vagus nerve runs through both the larynx and pharynx in your throat, humming creates a vibration that stimulates your vagus nerve and can increase your vagal tone (aka the health of your vagus nerve!).

Where can the vagus nerve get pinched? ›

But the reality is that vagus nerve dysfunction is commonly caused by sudden injuries caused by twisting, bending, pulling, or lifting. One common instance in which you could pinch this nerve in the neck and invite all the problems we've touched on thus far is with a whiplash injury.

What type of doctor treats the vagus nerve? ›

At UCSF Health, our neurologists and neurosurgeons have expertise in implanting vagal nerve stimulators to treat seizures caused by diseases such as epilepsy.

Videos

1. Settle your stomach and stimulate your vagus nerve
(Yoga with Olga)
2. Vagus Nerve Hack
(Holly Duckworth PhD)
3. HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR VAGAL TONE | 9 ways to tap into the power of your inner calm
(The Movement Paradigm®)
4. 2 Ways You Can HACK Your Nervous System
(Mark Suski)
5. We are Electrochemical Beings with Vagus Nerve Society Founder Dr Marc Tager
(UNfiltered Healing Podcast)
6. What's the Vagus Nerve got to do with menopause?
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