• The vagus nerve runs throughout the body, influencing many major body processes and our stress and anxiety levels

  • Dancer Julia F. Christensen shares how dancing can stimulate the vagus nerve

When doctors in the Middle Ages began, in secret, to dissect corpses to learn more about the body and its functions, they kept coming across one nerve in particular. Today we know it as the vagus nerve. 

The vagus nerve is the tenth of twelve cranial nerves, and its name—derived from the Latin vagari, “to wander”— describes its purpose: it wanders (or “vagabonds”) about inside our body and has countless branches. Originating in the brain stem, it runs along our spinal cord and reaches into most of our organs. 

Inside our head it connects with our voice box (which enables us to speak) and with the nerves and muscles in our face (responsible for our facial expressions). From the spinal cord, the vagus nerve branches out into our heart and lungs, the spleen (crucial to our immune system), and runs all the way down to our digestive tract. 

It connects to many of the large muscles of our body, which are responsible for posture and movement. Because it plays an important part in controlling our organs and allows for their relaxed functionality, the vagus nerve is sometimes referred to as the relaxation nerve. 

For many medical researchers, including the American Stephen Porges, the vagus nerve is a minor miracle; they see it as influencing the efficiency of the regulation of blood sugar, decreasing the risk of stroke and heart problems, lowering blood pressure, and promoting healthy digestion. Its activity positively impacts our gut biome, reduces inflammation, improves our mood, and hence mitigates stress.

So how can we activate the vagus nerve? 

A vast number of stretching exercises for this purpose can be found online, and exercise programs, such as yoga, identify poses that stimulate our biological systems and in particular our vagus nerve.

And as you may have already guessed, dancing, too, works wonders. For example, when we bend backward or forward, we stimulate our digestion because important nerve connections reach from the spinal cord in our lumbar region into our digestive tract. When we lean far back, we stimulate the bundle of nerves below our sternum, which in turn sends up a “wake up” signal to all organs. Our heart gets stimulated and our circulation improves. 

Bending backward also makes us take deeper breaths. As a result, fresh oxygen from the small air sacs in our lungs enters our blood and is carried to the cells, where it is needed for our metabolism. The carbon dioxide produced by the cells is brought back to the lungs and released when we exhale. In addition, our blood provides our cells with nutrients, transports messenger substances and hormones, and removes waste products from the cells so they can be filtered by our kidneys and excreted from our gut. 

This process speeds up when we dance because, by moving, we increase our heart rate and breathing. Compared to doing straight muscle training and many other kinds of sport, dancing often involves raising our arms above our heads. When we do this, our lungs open, and when we next inhale, air enters deep into the lobes of our lungs. This, too, makes breathing more efficient. Deep breaths all the way down into the stomach area relax our diaphragm, the so-called breathing muscle located between belly and chest. If we hold tension in our diaphragm, we also tend to feel ill at ease emotionally. We figure something is wrong with us; we feel trapped or constricted. Go dancing and take deep breaths! It can feel like a genuine release.

All of these movements wonderfully stimulate our vagus nerve, which has a calming and relaxing effect on our body. Interestingly, we find the backward bend and the raised arms in images of dance all over the world, regardless of culture, era, or specific dance form. Humans seem to like these particular movements—maybe because of a positive effect on our health that we may sense, even if we are not consciously aware. Why not give it a try?

  • Sit on a chair and place your hands on the edges of the seat, next to your thighs. Now imagine inhaling your favourite fragrance. Enjoy that scent for two or three more breaths. Continue to breathe until your shoulders relax. Then lightly push down on the chair, relaxing your shoulders so they move even farther away from your ears. 
  • With your next inhalation, imagine a beautiful, bright light or a gorgeous necklace resting against your chest. You want to show this light or piece of jewellery to everyone, and so you move your chest as if pointing the light at the ceiling, or as if your sternum were a flower bursting into bloom. Keep breathing. 
  • Grow out of your chest and support the movement with your arms by lifting them high above your head like the branches of a tree. Don’t be concerned if the unfamiliar movement and the deep breaths make you a little dizzy. Just keep breathing down into your belly. Then slowly return to your starting position.

Well done! You have just performed a ballet move—and probably relaxed your diaphragm beautifully in the process. And there is another fantastic side effect: if you raise your eyes to look up during the backward bend, you also stimulate your optic nerve.

Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang are the authors of Dancing Is the Best Medicine: The Science of How Moving to a Beat Is Good for Body, Brain, and Soul

Further reading

What is the vagus nerve?

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?

How to move through trauma

The importance of integrating movement into daily life