Simple and Effective Strategies to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve


The vagus nerve is the communication pathway between the brain and the immune system, said Navaz Habib, DC, AFMCP, AcuP, author of Activate Your Vagus Nerve. And when the immune system becomes triggered or activated, we need a regulatory force.

“Every time there's an accelerator being pushed by some sort of stressor or trigger, we need the brakes to be pushed, and the brake signal comes from the vagus nerve,” explained Dr. Habib, who is host of The Health Upgrade Podcast.

Dr. Habib says balancing the body's “accelerator" and "brakes" is crucial, especially in managing inflammatory conditions. For instance, he explained that conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) often result from a lack of signals that keep the gut moving effectively and provide anti-inflammatory cues to the immune system. This deficiency can lead to leaky gut syndrome or dysbiosis, where harmful bacteria outnumber beneficial ones, exacerbating inflammation and discomfort.

Thus, in addition to looking at gut bacterial population and mitochondrial function for these conditions, Dr. Habib also measures vagus nerve function primarily through heart rate variability (HRV). According to Dr. Habib, wearable devices, which many patients already use, can help identify whether a person is in a stress-induced or relaxed parasympathetic state.

“When HRV is up, the vagus nerve is working better, but when HRV is down, the vagus nerve is not working very well, meaning that the signals to the immune system are not great,” he explained. “We want higher signaling to those immune cells. HRV is the greatest way to tell us that.”

Effective vagus nerve stimulation can help restore critical immune system signals, reducing inflammation when vagus nerve function is down. Dr. Habib’s top strategies to stimulate the vagus nerve include:

Controlled Breath

“Ultimately, controlling the vagus nerve comes down to the breath,” said Dr. Habib. “If we've been taught innately to breathe with more, longer inhales than exhales, that means we're spending more time pushing the accelerator and less time pushing the brakes. Both need to happen effectively.”

To help patients improve their breath control, Dr. Habib often has them download an app that works to change their breathing habits. This is not an easy feat; Dr. Habib said that for controlled breathing to work in the long term, patients need to completely alter their breathing patterns for good.

“Teaching ourselves to breathe through our nose diaphragmatically and have longer exhales is the best way to help shift the breath patterns to allow for us to be in that parasympathetic state more readily,” said Dr. Habib.

Vocalization Techniques

Dr. Habib explained that activities like humming, chanting, and gargling can all help temporarily stimulate vagus nerve function. However, they are limited by their frequency of use compared to breathing techniques.

“The difference is we breathe between 18 and 28,000 times per day. We can only gargle three or four times a day,” said Dr. Habib. “So, those tools are effective, but the breath is the key thing we need to regulate because it's happening constantly.”

Electrical Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)

According to Dr. Habib, VNS provides a more targeted approach compared to controlled breathing and vocalization techniques. These can be both non-invasive, or impanted under the skin. Dr. Habib usually recommends non-invasive devices. He explained that these devices can provide rapid and effective results, with neck stimulation requiring only two minutes compared to the longer duration needed for ear stimulation. 

“This is where we can accelerate that neuroplastic change or that neuroplastic boost to vagus nerve function,” said Dr. Habib.