vagal tone

What Is Vagal Tone?

What is vagal tone?


It’s the activity of the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).


You can think of it as the key to letting stress roll off your back.


The vagus nerve wanders from the brain to all the organs, branching off with thousands of nerve fibers. What’s really cool is the vagus nerve communicates in both directions—both to and from the brain!


How Does Vagal Tone Affect Health?

Here are just 5 ways vagal tone affects health:


1. Heart Health

The vagus nerve directly innervates the heart, influencing heart rate and blood pressure. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a direct measurement of vagal tone, with a higher HRV indicating better vagal tone.


2. Metabolic Health

The vagus nerve communicates from the brain to the gut, liver, pancreas and then back again. It helps to regulate hunger, insulin, blood sugar, lipids, and inflammation. Studies have even linked vagal tone with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.


3. Mood

The vagus nerve is thought to affect mental health through mechanisms related to stress, the gut-brain axis, and inflammation. Vagal nerve stimulation has been researched in people struggling with depression.


4. Digestion

Gut hormones and neurotransmitters trigger nerve endings in the vagus nerve to send signals back to the brain. In turn, the vagus nerve regulates gut motility, secretions, and more. This is what we call the gut-brain axis!


5. Healthy Aging

Vagal tone may decrease with age, affecting everything from the heart to the gut to inflammation.


How Can You Improve Vagal Tone?

In functional medicine, we are all about looking deeper for the root cause and using the least invasive approaches for the most effective results. Vagal tone is not considered a “cause” of disease, but we are learning more and more about how it affects nearly every aspect of health. Plus, there are simple and free ways to improve vagal tone!


The vagus nerve helps regulate everything from heart rate to gut motility to inflammation to mood. When you increase your vagal tone, you send a signal of safety to all of your organs so they can function at their best.


Here are some science backed ways to tone the vagus nerve:


  • Deep Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Massage
  • Exercise
  • Cold Water Plunge
  • Nutrition


Foods That Increase Vagal Tone

Foods can increase vagal tone through the gut-brain axis. For example:


  • Fiber sends signals through the vagus nerve to the brain and back to slow gut movements and make us feel full.
  • The Mediterranean Diet is associated with higher heart rate variability, which is a measure of vagal tone.
  • Probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins improve heart rate variability too.

All of these work because the vagus nerve communicates in both directions—both to and from the brain. These practices send signals to the brain that increase activity of the vagus nerve.


That means no more “fight or flight” and a lot more “rest and digest.”


The vagus nerve regulates everything from heart health to metabolic health to immune function, and it is strongly influenced by what is going on in the gut! That means that anything you do (or eat) to affect gut health will probably also affect vagal tone.