Andrew Huberman Vagus Nerve: Science & Recommendations

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According to Professor Andrew Huberman, vagus nerve stimulation has gained prominence in recent years as a potential pathway to calming the mind and body.

Huberman further explains that the reality is more complex.

In this post, we will share Andrew Huberman’s insights on the vagus nerve, how it functions, and methods to stimulate the vagus nerve to change your mood and state.

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Andrew Huberman Vagus Nerve

Andrew Huberman Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve offers a portal into remarkable connections between mind, brain and body. Andrew Huberman describes it as follows:

Anatomy

As the wandering 10th cranial nerve, the vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and branches bidirectionally between organs and nervous structures throughout the body.

Latin for “vagabond,” it earned this name as early neuroanatomists traced its winding, prolific neural pathways. It interfaces significantly with the heart, lungs, liver, gut, and other viscera.

Diverse Effects

Beyond the notion it universally promotes calming, the vagus nerve exhibits diverse, far-reaching impacts on physiology:

  • Stimulation of certain pathways elevates sympathetic tone and arousal, even inducing anxiety
  • Links to activation of gut dopamine and food-seeking
  • Subserves key gut-brain communications
  • Plays a major role in depression when dysfunctional

Breathing Connections

Interactions with the phrenic nerve controlling the diaphragm allow vagal signaling to be activated through careful breathing techniques. This provides accessible biohacks.

As Huberman states, “rarely are we able to be both accurate and exhaustive about what any given brain structure or neural pathway does.”

Yet by targeting specific vagal nerve fibers, we can shape aspects of its multifaceted circuitry to our advantage – if armed with the right understanding.

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Huberman Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Huberman Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Popular conceptions of the vagus nerve focus narrowly on its parasympathetic functions in promoting relaxation.

However, Andrew Huberman reiterates that the reality is far more complex:

“Anytime someone tells you that vagal nerve stimulation or activating the vagus will calm you down, you just tell them, really?

Well, then, why is it that neurobiologists with laboratories use vagal nerve stimulation as a way to try and create more arousal and alertness— that is, elevated activation of the sympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system, the one that’s sometimes called the fight or flight arm of the autonomic nervous system, although that’s a bit too simplistic a name– in order to try and alleviate depression or in order to try and wake up experimental animals or people undergoing neurosurgery who are drifting toward a coma state?”

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Beyond Calming

Vagus nerve stimulation does not universally dampen the brain and body. Depending on the pathway, it can also increase anxiety, arousal, respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure.

For those with depression, activating specific vagal fibers has even been used to elevate mood and motivation as a treatment approach.

So, the effects of vagal stimulation depend greatly on which nerve branches are being targeted and how.

Implications

This highlights the diversity and complexity of vagal circuitry. It conflicts with notions that stimulating the vagus axiomatically brings relaxation.

As Huberman concludes, it is an oversimplification to label any brain structure as having one narrow function.

The vagus nerve exemplifies this, with intricate networks capable of calming, exciting, communicating, and more.

A careful understanding of anatomy allows us to strategically engage precise vagal pathways, whether aiming to soothe distress or boost lagging energy. But inaccurate assumptions risk unpredictable results.

Huberman Vagus Nerve Calming Protocol

The key pathway involves long, slow exhales while focusing on outward belly expansion. This engages the phrenic nerve to the diaphragm as well as interconnected vagal fibers.

Placing hands on the stomach can help focus attention and visualize its outward movement during inhales.

Exhaling slowly through either the mouth or nose can maximize vagal firing.

The extended exhale is critical, as vagal activity ramps up during longer breaths.

Performing just 5-10 belly-focused, slow breaths can significantly stimulate the calming aspects of vagal signaling and reduce heart rate. This begins reversing anxiety and stress reactions.

Physiological Sigh

For more rapid effects, Huberman recommends combining diaphragmatic breathing with a specific three-step maneuver:

  1. Take a full, deep inhale through the nose, letting the belly expand outward.
  2. Take a second quick, sharp inhale to fully inflate the lungs. Again allow the stomach to distend.
  3. Exhale slowly through the mouth for as long as possible, pulling the stomach inward.

Aim to sigh deeply into the belly through maximum lung inflation, then purge lungs fully via a long exhalation.

This triggers dramatic vagal nerve firing and prompt calming.

The full physiological sigh may only need to be performed 1-2 times.

Additional Strategies

Other techniques like humming during slow exhales or particular organ massage methods may also stimulate helpful vagal signaling.

But diaphragmatic breathing and the physiological sigh make up Huberman’s frontline defense for acute stress.

By targeting specific nerve pathways, we can leverage the vagus nerve’s parasympathetic potential

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Devices

Researchers are also exploring implanted devices to directly stimulate the vagus nerve.

Huberman notes studies showing vagal nerve stimulation can alleviate treatment-resistant depression by increasing patient alertness, energy, and optimism about the future. This is the opposite of a calming effect.

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However, he cautions that these devices require ongoing adjustment and likely have more efficacy than external products.

FAQ

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve extending from the brainstem to organs throughout the body including the heart, lungs, liver, and gut. Its pathways appear wandering, hence the name “vagus” meaning vagabond.

Does stimulating the vagus nerve always calm you down?

No. Activating certain vagal pathways can increase anxiety, arousal, breathing rate, and blood pressure instead of relax. Effects depend on which nerve fibers are stimulated.

How can I calm down using my vagus nerve?

Slow exhales focused on outward belly expansion engage the vagus through diaphragm pathways. Combining this “diaphragmatic breathing” with the rapid physiological sigh maneuver can quickly lower heart rate.

Can humming stimulate the vagus?

Yes. Studies show low-pitched, extended humming triggers measurable vagus nerve activity. This also releases nitric oxide to dilate blood vessels. The combination provides calming effects.

Do I need an implant or device to activate my vagus nerve?

No. While promising depression research uses implantable vagus nerve stimulators, most benefit comes from simple, accessible breathing techniques involving the diaphragm and long exhales.

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About the Author

Drew Wilkins is a fitness and nutrition expert with a Master's in Biokinesiology (emphasis in Sports Science) from the University of Southern California and over a decade of experience as a personal trainer, nutrition consultant, and wellness coach. An avid surfer and soccer player, he brings a unique perspective to his research, advocating for a balanced approach to health that includes physical fitness, nutrition, and mental well-being.

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