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. Harvard medical director Jeffrey Rediger offers us three ways to fire up the vagus nerve, so you can focus on strengthening your immune system.
Relax your body and mind: 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. 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. During one study on the effects of vagus nerve stimulation on children with epilepsy, 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 two-fold.
As for prayer, Rediger thinks of it like meditation. “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).