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Icing your vagus nerve is a TikTok trend that’s gone viral, and as someone who’s been an anxious person for most of my life, I was interested to learn more about this tactic.
As it turns out, icing the vagus nerve could have some benefits for anxiety, and it’s a concept rooted in some science, so get an ice pack handy.
I did try it, and whether it’s a placebo or not I’m not sure, but I felt it was helpful.
Can Icing Your Vagus Nerve Help Calm Anxiety?
TikTok is a treasure trove of helpful tips, but there are also more than a few flops that you’ll see floating around. There’s a lot of health misinformation on TikTok and out-of-context information. Still, the latest viral advice to ice your vagus nerve might not fall into those misinformation categories.
Icing the nerve is characterized as a quick fix for insomnia and anxiety.
The idea is that you put an ice pack on your chest region, and then you’ll calm down and be able to fall asleep faster and lower your acute stress level.
Millions have watched the video about the potentially brilliant life hack for a reduction in stress levels, which is something so many of us need in our modern life.
The TikTok user who started the trend said she’d tried everything to help her fall back asleep in the night, including tea drinking and deep breathing. Despite her effects, insomnia or waking up in the middle of the night was a regular occurrence.
The idea is that the ice stimulates and tones the vagus nerve, which we’ll talk more about below. The vagus nerve is an important part of your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down after activating your sympathetic nervous system.
A fair amount of research shows that vagus nerve stimulation through different mechanisms can help with fear and anxiety. Researchers have specifically looked at vagus nerve stimulation related to insomnia with promising results.
In some research, vagus nerve stimulation is done with an implanted electronic device, which can also help the body produce more melatonin. Not everyone is going to have an electronic device implanted, of course, so many people are taking the research and looking for easier ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and get the same benefits.
The use of cold temperatures for vagus stimulation has been supported in some research as of late, thus the ice pack trick.
The trick is simple and safe, so there’s no risk even if you don’t find that it works as well as you’d like it to. All you do is use an ice pack on your chest for a few minutes. You can lie down with the ice on your chest for 15 minutes or longer. Wrap the ice pack in a towel or use something you have on hand, like a bag of frozen vegetables, if you don’t have an ice pack. What matters is the cold temperature.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
There are 12 cranial nerves in our body. They come in pairs. These cranial nerves link our brain with other body areas such as our head and neck.
Some of the cranial nerves send sensory information to the brain. Others control the movement of muscles, glands’ function, and a host of other physiological mechanisms.
Some cranial nerves have sensory and motor functions, and the vagus nerve is one of those. The vagus nerve is also called cranial nerve X or the pneumogastric nerve. The nerve controls the functions of digestion, breathing, cardiovascular activity, heart rate, and reflex actions like swallowing and vomiting.
The vagus nerve is the main component of our parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system oversees crucial bodily functions, including digestion, heart rate, immune response, and mood.
The parasympathetic nervous system creates connections between our brain and GI tract and sends information about the state of our internal organs to the brain. The nerve is the key link in the gut-brain axis.
Researchers believe that due to the many functions of the nerve, it could be a target for treating psychiatric and gastrointestinal diseases.
Stimulating the nerve is already being explored as an add-on treatment for treatment-refractory depression, inflammatory bowel disease, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Treatments that target the nerve increase its tone and inhibit the production of inflammatory cytokines.
Stimulating the nerve affects fibers in the gut that then impact mood and anxiety disorders. All of this is in line with what we’re currently learning about the role of gut bacteria on our mood and psychiatric health.
Vagal tone correlates with our ability to regulate our stress response.
Vagus Nerve Testing
A doctor can check the function of the nerve through the gag reflex. During the exam, a doctor might tickle the back of the throat on both sides using a cotton swab. Typically, you should gag, but it might indicate a problem with the vagus nerve if you don’t.
Symptoms of damage to the vagus nerve can include:
- Loss of the gag reflex
- Changes in digestion
- Problems speaking
- Loss or change of voice
- Low blood pressure
- Slow heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain and bloating
- Depression and anxiety
- Acid reflux
- Loss of appetite
The nerve can sustain damage from various conditions, including viral infections, diabetes, scleroderma, and abdominal surgery.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Currently, vagus nerve stimulation or VNS uses electrical impulses to stimulate the left vagus nerve. A healthcare provider puts a small device in the chest, under the skin. A wire then runs under the skin, connecting the nerve and the device. The device sends mild and painless electrical signals to the brain through the left vagus nerve. The impulses can calm down irregular electrical activity in the brain.
The FDA has approved stimulation to treat depression and epilepsy, not responding to other therapies.
Currently, researchers are looking at vagus nerve stimulation to treat inflammatory bowel disease, cluster headaches, PTSD, rheumatoid arthritis, and pain.
Experts think the nerve may be a link between coronary heart disease, metabolic disease, and depression.
If you’ve ever experienced a fight-or-flight response, you often feel it in your gut. During periods of high stress, it’s normal to feel that fight-or-flight, heightened, and on-guard sensation.
However, during periods of chronic high stress, your body stays stuck like that.
You have ongoing flooding of stress hormones, including cortisol and stress hormones. That is damaging to your mind and body and can lead to many health problems over time, including mood swings, chronic pain, anxiety, and gut inflammation.
The nerve can counterbalance that fight-or-flight response, including cardiovascular reactivity.
How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve At Home
When you stimulate your nerve, you may be able to balance your nervous system. While it’s still being studied, there are some potential ways you can stimulate it at home.
- Practice slow breathing. Try to have six breaths per minute. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
- Promote stimulation of the nerve through yoga, which encourages movement and deep breathing, helping with healthy cardiac-vagal activation.
- Do belly breathing. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale. If you combine meditation with belly breathing in your daily routine, it can promote better emotional resilience in various ways.
- Exhale for longer than you inhale—the exhale is what can trigger the relaxation response and lower mental stress and chronic stress.
- There’s some evidence that gargling with water or loud singing can stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Taking probiotics may be helpful. Researchers are looking at a growing body of evidence showing a healthy balance of good gut bacteria affects the vagus nerve and mental health. In an animal study, the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus helped reduce stress hormones, depression, and anxiety-like behavior. Another study found the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium Longum normalized anxiety-like behavior in animals by acting through the vagus nerve.
- Meditation can help increase vagal tone, promote positive emotions, and reduce sympathetic fight or flight behavior by increasing vagal modulation.
- Omega-3 fatty acids help the brain and nervous system function properly. Researchers have discovered omega-3 fatty acids can also increase vagal activity and tone. High fish consumption is linked with more vagal activity and what’s described as parasympathetic predominance.
Finally, acute cold exposure can activate the vagus nerve, as you might have guessed. Regular exposure to cold can lower your sympathetic or fight-or-flight response and increase parasympathetic activity throughout the nerve. You can do this with cold showers or a cold plunge, or opt to ice your nerve.
How Does Icing Your Vagus Nerve Activate It?
When you ice your vagus nerve or expose it to cold temperatures, the effects can be similar to deep breathing. Cold temperatures restrict blood vessels, leading to the activation of the vagus nerve.
In one study, researchers found that when cold temperatures were applied to the neck, cheek, and right forearm, it slowed participants’ heartrates. In another study published in Clinical Autonomic Research, participants’ had slower heart rates after ice water.
You don’t just have to ice your vagus nerve by putting a cold pack on your chest. The nerve extends from the base of your brainstem at the top of your neck through the abdomen. As a result, you can activate the nerve by putting your head in ice water or your face in ice-cold water or using cold stimulation on your abdomen.
Ice-cold showers can be an effective way to deal with the experience of stress, and many people find regular cold showers or cold immersion significantly help their symptoms of mental health conditions.
What’s compelling about cold temperatures for vagal stimulation is that it works quickly. While deep breathing exercises can take a little longer to work, cold exposure can take just 16 seconds to start calming you down.
Final Thoughts—Icing Your Vagus Nerve
Future studies and research on the vagus nerve and its many effects on our mental and physical health will likely lead to some extremely compelling findings in the next few years.
In the meantime, if you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, insomnia, or even inflammation and chronic pain, you might consider icing your vagus nerve.
It’s a simple, cheap, and potentially effective life hack that’s also safe.
Even if you don’t have a cold compress on hand, there are plenty of ways that you can expose this key nerve to cold temperatures. You can use a pack of peas, a cold shower, a bag of frozen fruit, or ice cubes. The goal is to get that cold exposure for nerve stimulation therapy.