There is no research that supports the health benefits of vagus nerve tapping specifically.
Electrical vagus nerve stimulation is the most research-backed method of increasing vagal tone and providing health benefits.
Alternative methods of vagal nerve stimulation may provide an effective and safe way to restore the nervous system.
Various lifestyle changes can benefit your vagus nerve function and overall health.
Can we tap our way to better health? Vagal nerve stimulation is a fairly new concept in functional medicine, but it is being touted for its wide array of health benefits. Vagus nerve tapping, massage, and laughter are just a few of the methods that aim to restore balance to the nervous system by healing the vagus nerve (the primary component of the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest”, nervous system).
While the research behind some of these methods, including tapping, is limited, vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to have significant health benefits. Some of the more invasive forms of vagus nerve stimulation have even been FDA-approved for certain conditions, like treatment-resistant depression.
The article will explore the power of the vagus nerve, the various methods of vagal nerve stimulation beyond vagus nerve tapping, simple lifestyle techniques for improving vagus nerve health, and what it means to have good vagal tone.
The Important Role of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is classified as a “cranial nerve” and is the main component of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the branch of our autonomic nervous system known as the “rest and digest” branch. It helps us to relax and counteracts the “fight or flight” response by inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
Having a properly functioning vagus nerve allows us to recover more quickly after having a stress response. With chronic stress now running rampant in our modern society, our ability to quickly recover after daily stressors is crucial to our physical health.
The vagus nerve is an important modulator of our immune systems, and it has largely anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Researchers are currently investigating the role of the vagus nerve in treating various inflammatory conditions [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
The vagus nerve provides a direct pathway from the GI tract to the brain. It transports neurotransmitters that are made in the digestive tract, like serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine, to the brain. Once in the brain, these powerful chemicals can then directly influence our appetite, ability to feel pain, mood, and even memory [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Having an under-functioning vagus nerve, otherwise known as poor “vagal tone,” is linked to several health conditions, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, seizures, and diabetes [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
However, it is unclear at this time what the exact relationship between these conditions and vagal tone is. It is possible that low vagal tone does not cause these conditions but is simply a symptom of these disorders.
How to Measure Your Vagal Tone
As the vagus nerve is a main regulator of our heart rate, we can estimate vagal nerve tone through a test called heart rate variability (HRV) [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. HRV measures the fluctuations in time between our heartbeats. More fluctuations in our heart rate, or “higher vagal tone,” indicates more activity in the vagus nerve and a balanced autonomic nervous system [20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 21 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
However, even though we have the ability to measure vagal tone, there are no definitive ranges that tell us exactly where our HRV should be [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Higher HRV is considered an independent marker of better health and is linked to stronger resilience of our nervous systems. It is associated with our body’s ability to return to “normal” after experiencing a stressful event [22 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Less variability in heart rate is considered “low vagal tone” and is an indicator of poor health outcomes [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, and a sedentary lifestyle are all linked to lower HRV levels.
Tracking HRV is fairly easy with the recent technological developments in mobile healthcare. All that is needed is a device, such as a smartwatch or smartphone application, that measures your heart rate and automatically calculates HRV for you. This gives us a simple and straightforward way to gauge the health of our nervous systems at home.
Does Vagus Nerve Tapping Provide Health Benefits?
There are a myriad of new techniques that claim to restore the balance of our nervous systems by strengthening the vagus nerve. But do these techniques really work, and, more importantly, can they lead us to better wellness?
There is currently no research on the health benefits of vagus nerve tapping or its ability to improve vagal tone (activity of the vagus nerve). This particular technique involves tapping different parts of the chest to stimulate the vagus nerve and balance our autonomic nervous system.
There are a few YouTube videos that demonstrate how to perform vagus nerve tapping, but there is very little information regarding the science or evidence behind the technique.
Despite the underwhelming research on vagus nerve tapping, there are several similar methods that stimulate vagal function which are backed by a small amount of evidence. But first, let’s discuss the basics of vagal nerve stimulation and some of the more heavily researched methods.
What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
Vagus nerve stimulation or “VNS” is either the mechanical or electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. This stimulation of the vagus nerve is thought to directly activate it and produce many positive health effects on the body.
Invasive VNS requires surgical implantation of a device that delivers electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve, forcing the body to enter a relaxation response. This is a fairly invasive procedure where an electrode is embedded under the skin, near the collarbone. It comes with a higher risk of side effects, including [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:
Vocal changes and hoarseness
Facial nerve paralysis
Invasive VNS is actually FDA-approved for the treatment of epilepsy and treatment- resistant depression [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Even though it may come with a higher risk of side effects, it gives those with psychiatric and seizure disorders another option for when traditional medications do not work.
In patients with Crohn’s disease, invasive VNS calmed inflammation in the GI tract and reduced overall activity of IBD symptoms after 4-6 months of use [24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. It is also currently being researched for use in migraines, tinnitus, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and infertility [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Non-surgical electrical VNS uses electrodes that are placed either on the ear or the neck to increase vagal tone. Research shows that this method of vagal stimulation reduces inflammation, abdominal pain, indigestion, irritable bowel disease, and migraines [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Vagus nerve tapping may not be the best way to improve vagal tone, and not everyone has access to electrical VNS. Fortunately, there are several easy ways to improve both your overall health and the health of your vagus nerve.
It is important to highlight that many of these methods are known to produce many physiological changes in the body, and their benefits may not be limited to their direct effects on the vagus nerve. That being said, they are safe and simple lifestyle changes that can be easily incorporated into your daily routine.
Having a daily meditation practice may strengthen your vagus nerve and restore balance to your nervous system. Those who practice mindfulness, a form of meditation that focuses on living in the present moment, also had significantly increased HRV and vagal tone [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
“Laughter is the best medicine” may not be just an expression. One study showed that laughter may improve HRV, anxiety, and overall mood [31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. One study that looked at over 20,000 participants found that those who laughed less had a higher prevalence of heart disease, even after controlling for other cardiovascular factors [32 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
3. Breathing exercises
Research shows that breathing exercises can improve heart rate variability, a common measure of vagus nerve function [33 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
One study looked at the effect of slow breathing on the symptoms of patients with brain injuries. These exercises were designed to directly target the vagus nerve by controlling the rate at which the participants breathed. The results showed that this practice improved the function of the vagus nerve and the patients’ emotional regulation [34 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Singing, humming, and mantra chanting also can stimulate the vagus nerve through the vibration of our vocal cords. These techniques are linked to increased vagal tone, but this finding may be more related to the effect that these exercises have on our breathing patterns [35 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Fortunately, breathing exercises are easy to do while you are on the go. They can be incredibly beneficial in restoring the nervous system when performed after experiencing stressful events throughout the day.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” is a useful method that helps to slow down your breath. The goal with this technique is to fully engage the abdominal muscles while inhaling, in order to draw the breath deeper into the lungs.
One simple breathing technique you can try is called “box breathing”. This technique involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, breathing out for 4 seconds, and then holding your breath again for 4 seconds. Repeat this sequence for 4 minutes.
This helps relax the muscles of the chest that are constantly engaged during shallow and rapid breathing — the pattern we unconsciously slip into when stressed.
Many diets that support gut health and overall wellness also appear to benefit vagal tone. Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in trans fats, like the Paleo diet, are linked to better vagal tone.
Food rich in polyphenols, minerals, and vitamins — particularly B12 — may also help to improve vagus nerve health [36 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 37 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Incorporating leafy green vegetables, fresh fruits, tea, dark chocolate, and red wine into your diet can boost your polyphenol levels. Foods that are high in B12 include hormone-free meats, seafood, and eggs.
Probiotics may also benefit vagal tone [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source] and can easily be implemented into your diet as supplements or foods that promote good gut bacteria, like kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt.
Exercise is one of the best ways to quickly improve your heart rate variability. The first place to start is to ensure you are getting daily movement in. A good goal is at least 5,000 steps per day (up to 8-10,000 steps per day if you are feeling ambitious). One study showed that walking five days per week improved HRV and vagal tone [38 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Once you are engaging in daily movement, you can then layer in formal exercise. One of the best places to start is aerobic exercise. This includes low-intensity cardio on a bike, treadmill, rower at a target heart rate of 110-150 beats per minute for 10-60 minutes. Start slow and work your way up to a longer duration.
High-intensity exercise also showed significant benefit in increasing HRV and even reduced abnormal heart contractions in those with heart disease [39 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. However, repeated high-intensity exercise without adequate rest and recovery may actually do the opposite to your vagal nervous system.
Heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback is another method that aims to regulate the vagus nerve by monitoring your heart rate. It may be a potential treatment for improving cognition in those with post-concussive syndrome [42 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. When combined with slow breathing exercises, HRV biofeedback may help improve vagal tone and lower blood pressure [43 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Massage (Possibly Effective)
Patients who performed carotid sinus massage, a technique that emphasizes massage of certain neck muscles, had reduced heart rate and improved vagus nerve function. However, carotid sinus massage may be unsafe for people with certain cardiovascular conditions. Talk to your doctor prior to trying it [44 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
One study looked at the effects of massage with tap and ice water, which stimulates the vagus nerve through temperature and pressure. Ice massage can be performed by massaging any area of the body with an ice cube or frozen ice pack. Massage with either water temperature has a positive effect on vagus nerve function and produces a decrease in heart rate [45 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Gargling, Tapping, and Gagging (Not Effective)
Gargling with salt water, self-induced gagging by touching the back of the throat, and vagus nerve tapping are all techniques rumored to stimulate the vagus nerve. However, there is currently no research that supports that any of these methods have any effects on the vagus nerve or offer health benefits.
It is important to note that several of the above techniques are well-known to produce many beneficial effects on the body. It is not clear if the benefits of these therapies are directly due to vagus nerve stimulation or through other physiological processes [35 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Overall, some of the less invasive forms of vagal nerve stimulation may likely provide health benefits, without the risks that come with electrical VNS. Start with techniques that improve vagal tone along with overall health, as opposed to techniques like gargling or tapping that may not be as beneficial.
The Verdict on Vagus Nerve Tapping
While vagus nerve tapping may not have much evidence to back up its effects on our nervous system and overall health, many other forms of vagal nerve stimulation show benefits.
Electrical VNS has the most evidence-based benefits for its ability to stimulate the vagus nerve and treat many chronic health conditions like depression, pain, epilepsy, and migraines. However, electrical VNS can be invasive and a difficult therapy for people to access.
Deep breathing exercises, exercise, laughter, and cold water massage are all forms of mechanical vagus nerve stimulation that are associated with increased HRV and vagal tone. They are easy to perform, come with minimal risks, and make VNS a more practical therapy.
Even making simple lifestyle changes, like adjusting your diet, exercising, and implementing mindfulness can help to restore balance to the nervous system and provide numerous health benefits.
For more information on healing the gut and re-establish the gut-brain axis, check out my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
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