25 Powerful Ways to Boost Your Endocannabinoid System

The endogenous cannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery, is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.
— Dr. Dustin Sulak

It’s becoming increasingly clear that stimulating and supporting your endocannabinoid system is another way to improve your brain and mental health. 

But you don’t need to smoke marijuana to do this. 

There are a number of other options, and this articles explore them.

Marijuana leaf and the endocannabinoid system.

But first, what exactly is your endocannabinoid system? 

Well, your body actually creates its own cannabinoids, similar to those found in cannabis. 

And these naturally-occurring cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors within your body and brain.

You can think of these receptors like little “locks”, and your body’s cannabinoids fit naturally into these locks like “keys”. Together, they make up your endocannabinoid system, which can influence your appetite, pain, inflammation, sleep, stress responses, mood, memory, motivation, reward, etc. (91-92). 

There are two main cannabinoid receptors – cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2). 

An illustration of CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body and brain.

CB1 receptors are mostly found in the brain and impact a number of neurotransmitters, including GABA, glutamate, dopamine and serotonin. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are mostly found within the immune system and blood cells (93-99).

However, it’s important to note that some CB1 receptors are still located outside the brain, and some CB2 receptors can be found within the brain. So, there is some overlap. 

According to Martin Lee, author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana, cannabinoid receptors are more abundant in the brain than any other type of neurotransmitter receptor.

There are two different types of cannabinoids that can activate these receptors in your body:

  • Phytocannabinoids – plant-derived cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) found in marijuana

  • Endocannabinoids – as mentioned before, these cannabinoids are produced naturally within the body. Anandamide is the main endocannabinoid in your body. It can be found in humans, but also many other animals and plants. It binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors and has similar effects as THC. 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) is another critical endocannabinoid in your body that also binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Its effects are similar to CBD (100-107).

What Are the Benefits of Stimulating and Supporting Your Endocannabinoid System?

Modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system has turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, to name just a few.
— Dr. Pal Pacher, M.D., Ph.D

There is an increasing amount of research linking a number of illnesses and symptoms to low endocannabinoids levels, including:

Some researchers are convinced that when your body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids (anandamide and 2-AG), you’re more likely to develop these diseases.

They’ve even coined the term “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency” to describe the problem (108). 

But if you have one of the above conditions, don’t worry!

You can stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system naturally, which can lead to a number of brain and mental health benefits:

CDB receptor synapses.

So without further ado, here are 25 ways to stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system naturally.

1. Cold Exposure

Cold exposure has been shown to increase endocannabinoid levels (1). 

Researchers have also found that cold exposure significantly increases the density of CB1 neurons (2). 

A man sitting outside in the freezing cold. Cold exposure stimulates the endocannabinoid system.

To support my endocannabinoid system, I take a cold shower every day, and often go outside with minimal clothing in the winter.

Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel.

Then work your way up to longer periods of time.

It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.

You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice cold water.

Cold exposure also stimulates the vagus nerve.

2. Sex Hormones

Male and female sex hormones also stimulate and support the endocannabinoid system.

Both testosterone and estradiol have been shown to upregulate CB1 receptors (3-4). 

Estradiol also increases the synthesis and release of the endocannabinoids (anandamide), which activates CB1 receptors (5-6). 

And the plasma levels of anandamide correlate nicely with the levels of estrogen during the menstrual cycle in women (7). 

I recommend both men and women get their hormones checked regularly. I had low testosterone and testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) really improved my brain and mental health. I no longer need TRT though. 

3. Coffee

Drinking coffee is another way to stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system. 

Researchers believe that the cannabinoid system is involved in the psychoactive properties of caffeine (10). 

Regular caffeine consumption has been shown to enhance the activation of CB1 receptors by endocannabinoids (8). 

CB1 receptors are also downregulated after “social defeat stress”, but caffeine counteracts this effect (9). 

I drink one cup of this coffee most mornings.

Coffee and caffeine can disrupt sleep though, so make sure you don’t drink it later in the day. I have my last cup sometime between 10 in the morning and noon. If I have it any later than that, it disrupts my sleep.

It's also a good idea to try to consume the whole coffee fruit, instead of just the coffee bean or pure caffeine. 

Traditionally, the coffee bean is extracted from the coffee fruit for roasting. And the surrounding fruit is discarded. 

But that’s a huge problem! 

Because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.

And after years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function. 

Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil has numerous health benefits, particularly because of its strong anti-inflammatory effects.

It’s also been shown to upregulate CB1 receptors (11).

I add olive oil to my salads and sometimes even just take a tablespoon of it straight.

Be careful though. A lot of cheap extra virgin olive oil in grocery stores are not actually “extra virgin.”

Investigations have found that there is a lot of fraud within the olive oil industry and many so-called extra virgin olive oils contains other cheaper, refined vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn and canola. 

This is discussed more in the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

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5. Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the active cannabinoids in cannabis. It is not psychoactive but has a wide range of medical applications.

Research shows that CBD enhances the expression of CB1 receptors in the brain (12-13). 

It also increases levels of 2-AG by preventing it from breaking down (14-15). 

In Canada, CBD oil is illegal. But a “friend of mine” managed to buy and take this CBD oil for a while and he recommends it. 

He said it reduced his stress, made him really sleepy and knocked him out before bed. He eventually stopped taking it because it was making him too drowsy during the day and he doesn’t need to take it any more for anxiety. If you decide to get the same CBD oil, you can use the coupon code 10off406 for a 10% discount.

In the United States, federal and state laws regarding the medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids are confusing. Many states allow cannabis products high in CBD and low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to be sold for medical use. Check the laws in your area before ordering.

6. Flavonoids

Flavonoids are a diverse group of plant compounds found in almost all fruits and vegetables.

Chocolate, tea, wine, and some beans, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds also contain them. Overall, the more colorful a food is, the richer it is in flavonoids.

Fruits and vegetables that are rich in flavinoids, which are known to stimulate the endocannabinoid system.

The following flavonoids inhibit fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which is the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the endocannabinoids (anandamide) (16):

  • Genistein

  • Kaempferol

  • 7-hydroxyflavone

  • 3,7-dihydroxyflavone

I try to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible on a daily basis so that I’m consuming plenty of flavonoids. It’s best to consume fruits and vegetables in their raw forms to receive the highest number of flavonoids, as cooked fruits and vegetables have less.

Check out my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health for a bunch of flavonoid-rich foods. 

7. Tea

Tea contains catechins, which are antioxidant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.

Researchers have found that catechins in tea target and bind to cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system (25-26).

Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the most well known catechin. It’s found in green tea. I take a concentrated green tea extract with EGCG to support my endocannabinoid system. 

Drinking tea can also lower cortisol, and green tea increases BDNF

8. Kava

Kava is a plant located in the western Pacific. The root of the plant is used medicinally to treat anxiety and sleep disorders because it causes relaxation without impacting cognitive performance. Some people say it feels like drinking alcohol (30-31). 

Researchers have evaluated commercially available kava supplements to see whether they bind to cannabinoid receptors. They found that yangonin, a compound in kava, binds to the CB1 receptor, and concluded that kava’s anti-anxiety effects may be because it stimulates the endocannabinoid system (32). 

I searched for kava supplements that include yangonin and found this one. I personally don’t take kava anymore because I get a weird reaction and my functional medical practitioner confirmed I’m allergic to the plant. 

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9. Osteopathy

Osteopathy is a healing modality that emphasizes the treatment of disease by manipulating and massaging the bones, joints, and muscles. 

One study found that endocannabinoid levels increased by 168% on average after osteopathic treatment. (33). 

Practitioners of osteopathy are referred to as osteopaths. I saw an osteopath in Ottawa soon after my concussions in 2010. I had been suffering from constant dizziness, and his therapy completely reversed the dizziness. And it was permanent. The dizziness never came back. I was amazed and very grateful. 

I recommend finding an osteopath in your area if you’ve ever suffered a traumatic brain injury. If you happen to be in the Ottawa area, go to this one

10. Probiotics

Research suggests that some probiotics can stimulate and support the endocannabinoid system. 

In one study, researchers found that a specific strain of probiotic, lactobacillus acidophilus, increases the expression of CB2 receptors (53). 

Lactobacillus acidophilus is included in the Optimal Biotics supplement.

Probiotics have also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and help with depression

And here are five other ways to increase the good bacteria in your gut. 

11. Dark Chocolate

Most people know dark chocolate is rich in multiple antioxidants, such as flavonols and polyphenols, which reduce oxidative stress.

But interestingly, it also contains the endocannabinoid anandamide (54). 

And it includes other compounds that slow down the breakdown of anandamide, increasing the amount of anandamide that stimulates your endocannabinoid system (55-56). 

This is likely why eating chocolate makes people feel so good.

Dark chocolate also increases BDNF and reduces cortisol.  

Here is my favourite high-quality dark chocolate

This one is also very good. 

12. Reduce Stress

I highly recommend you try to do something every day to manage your stress because emotional stress has been shown to downregulate CB1 receptors (57-58). 

High cortisol levels for prolonged periods of time, such as those caused by chronically stressful circumstances, also reduces CB1 receptors and significantly reduces cannabinoid binding to CB1 receptors (59-62). 

On top of this, chronic psychological stress reduces endocannabinoid levels in the brain (63-66). 

A hand squeezing a stress ball. Reducing stress can support your endocannabinoid system.

Overall, researchers say there is strong evidence that the endocannabinoid system as a whole is required in order to properly deal with stress (67). 

My favourite ways to reduce stress include neurofeedback, meditation (using the Muse headband), massage, acupuncture, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), emotional freedom techniques (EFT), heart-rate variability (HRV) training, and this acupressure mat

Some supplements that can help you reduce stress include zinc, magnesium, ashwagandha and phosphatidylserine.

This anti-anxiety supplement also includes a number of natural compounds that have personally helped me manage my stress over the years (Use the the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount).

And here is an article with 20 other ways to lower your stress hormone, cortisol. 

13. Magnolia Officinalis

Magnolia Officinalis is a plant that has neuroprotective properties and relaxing effects.

It’s used in Chinese traditional medicine for the treatment of anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders. 

Researchers have found that Magnolia officinalis extract and its main bioactive constituents, magnolol and honokiol, can activate cannabinoid receptors (17). 

Here is a good extract

Alternatively, you can drink Magnolia tea. 

Both the tea and extract should be taken with a meal consuming fat because the active ingredients are fat soluble. 

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14. Exercise

Exercise is another great way to stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system.

Medium and high-intensity exercise has been shown to activate the endocannabinoid system (73). 

Research also shows that exercise significantly upregulates CB1 receptors and enhances CB1 receptor sensitivity, which is why exercise can protect against the consequences of stress (68, 72, 74). 

Exercise-related improvements in memory are also due to activation of the CB1 receptor. Blocking this receptor seems to prevent the memory benefits of exercise (69, 72). 

Several studies also show that exercise increases levels of anandamide and activates cannabinoid signaling (70-71). 

Illustration of people running. Exercise stimulates the endocannabinoid system.

And researchers now believe that endocannabinoids may actually be responsible for the “runner’s high” (euphoria) during exercise, and not endorphins (76-77). 

However, you shouldn’t force yourself to exercise. Forced exercise is seen by the endocannabinoid system as a type of stress, and therefore doesn’t increase endocannabinoid levels and can actually decrease CB1 signaling (75). 

So, you should find an aerobic activity that you enjoy so that it’s not a burden.

This is exercise routine I try to follow consistently:

  • Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week

  • High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week

  • Walk as much as I can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)

  • Run for 20-30 minutes before lifting weights

Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. 

15. Palmitoylethanolamide

Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) is a natural compound that has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, and low levels of PEA can contribute to chronic brain inflammation and pain (20). 

Research shows that PEA can alleviate pain and increase mood by enhancing endocannabinoid activity (18-19, 21-24).

PEA is naturally found within the body, but it’s also available as a supplement. It's even used for medical purposes in Italy and Spain. 

You can get it here.

16. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.

Research shows that they increase the synthesis of endocannabinoids and upregulate both CB1 and CB2 receptors (78-79). 

There is also a connection between low omega-3 fatty acid intake, poor endocannabinoid function and mood changes (80). 

Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in cold water fish such as salmon, black cod, sablefish, sardines and herring.

Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet.

That’s why I recommend people supplement with krill oil, a special kind of fish oil that contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids. 

I take this one

You can also get very high-quality seafood and krill oil supplements here.

And you can read more about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids here

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17. Agmatine

Agmatine is a metabolite of the amino acid arginine. It can help reduce pain, treat drug addiction, and protect the brain from toxins (27-28). 

It has been shown to enhance the painkilling effects of cannabinoids. It does this by increasing cannabinoid action and signalling through the CB1 receptor (29). 

My personal experience with agmatine is that it made me agitated, so I stopped taking it. But I don’t have any symptoms of pain. If you do, I think it’s worth trying.

You can get it here.

18. Caryophyllene

Caryophyllene is a compound found in many plants and essential oils, including clove, rosemary, basil, oregano, lavender, and hops. It also contributes to the spiciness of black pepper (34). 

Caryophyllene has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-alcoholism effects (35, 40-41). 

These effects are likely because it binds to the cannabinoid receptors (36-37, 39, 42-43). 

It can also help reduce neuropathic pain through the CB2 receptor (38). 

19. Echinacea

Echinacea is a Native American medicinal plant and one of the most popular medicinal herbs.

People often use it to reduce flu symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold. It is sometimes used to reduce anxiety and relieve fatigue as well.

Compounds in Echinacea, called alkylamides, have been shown to reduce inflammation by binding to the CB2 receptor (44, 46-47). 

Researchers have also found that alkylamides increase the effect of endocannabinoids (45). 

There are a large variety of Echinacea supplements available through Amazon.

20. Black Truffle

Tuber melanosporum, also called the black truffle, is an edible mushroom native to Southern Europe.

Researchers have found the endocannabinoid anandamide within black truffles (49). 

Black truffle peelings are available here. They can be added meals and go particularly well with mashed potatoes. 

21. Diindolylmethane (DIM)

Diindolylmethane (DIM) is an anti-carcinogenic compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale.

DIM is one of the reasons why these foods are considered so healthy. 

Studies show that DIM reduces inflammation because it binds to CB2 receptors (50-51). 

It's also available in supplement form here.

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22. Ruta Graveolens

Ruta graveolens, commonly known as rue, is a medicinal herb.

Researchers have found that a compound within it binds to the cannabinoid receptors (52). 

Rue can be taken as an extract. You can get it here.

23. Acmella Oleracea

Acmella Oleracea, also known as Electric Daisy, is a medicinal herb originating from the Amazon region. 

It contains phytocannabinoids and other compounds that can reduce pain and inflammation (81-82). 

It’s available as an extract.

24. Helichrysum Umbraculigerum

Helichrysum Umbraculigerum is a plant with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, originating from South Africa.

It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years, especially in countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal. 

It’s been shown to have antidepressant effects likely because it contains cannabigerol, a phytocannabinoid that stimulates the endocannabinoid system (83-85). 

A number of different essential oils are available through Amazon

25. Radula Marginata

Radula Marginata is a plant commonly found in New Zealand.

It contains cannabinoids and cannabinoid-like compounds that bind to CB1 receptors, activating the endocannabinoid system (86-90). 

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many different ways to stimulate your endocannabinoid system besides smoking cannabis. 

And supporting this important system can lead to a number of brain and mental health benefits. 

I hope you implement some of these strategies into your regular routine and notice you feel better and live more optimally over time. 

If you think you know someone who might benefit from this article, please share it with them.

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

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(107) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9285589

(108) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18404144

(109) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3817535/

(110) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD

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How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health

By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist

Stimulation of my vagus nerve has played a key role in the management of my anxiety and mental health over the years. 

What exactly is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body.

13 ways to stimulate your vagus nerve for better mental health

It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. 

In fact, the word "vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs.  

The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.

But what you really need to pay special attention to is the "tone" of your vagus nerve.

Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. 

Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.

In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa (5).

It’s almost like yin and yang. The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.
— Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
An image of the vagus nerve.

What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels (1-3). 

Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). 

When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (53-55). 

You can increase your HRV by using the EmWave2 device

Some researchers actually use the EmWave2 to measure vagal tone in their studies. 

If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.

Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone has been shown to help treat a wide variety of brain and mental health conditions, including:

For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. And it works (6-9). 

But you don’t need to go down that route.

You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these 13 steps. 

1. Cold Exposure

Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways (10). 

Image of an old-fashioned, muscular, manly man. It says “Have a cold shower? You mean a shower?”

Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve (11).

I often take cold showers and go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing.

Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.

It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.

You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice cold water. 

2. Deep and Slow Breathing

Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. 

A woman closing here eyes and breathing deeply near the ocean. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve.

It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve (51-52). 

Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. 

The best way to know if you’re on the right track is by using the EmWave2 device. It’s a biofeedback device that assists you in pacing your breathing. I previously wrote about the benefits of using the device here. You can get it through Amazon or the HeartMath website

3. Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling

The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. 

Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.

And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (12).

I often gargle water before swallowing it. This is discussed more in Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?

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4. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (46). 

A woman’s ear with three acupuncture needles in it. Auricular acupuncture is very effective at stimulating the vagus nerve.

I’m a really big fan of auricular acupuncture. Auricular acupuncture is when needles are inserted into ear. I’d recommend trying to find a health practitioner in your area who provides it, especially if you’re weening off psychiatric medication. It really helped me the first time I came off antidepressants. I was surprised.

Research shows that ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, increases vagal activity and vagal tone, and can help treat “neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation” (45). 

In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture. I’m not sure why. I’ve just personally noticed more benefits from ear acupuncture. 

At the end of each appointment, my practitioner would secure these small black seeds on my ear. 

I also use this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed. 

5. Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and tai chi are two “mind-body” relaxation techniques that work by stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.

A woman practicing yoga or tai chi outside. Yoga and tai chi stimulate the vagus nerve and can improve your mental health.

Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents”, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (13-18). 

Researchers have also found that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore should be practiced by people who struggle with depression and anxiety (19). 

Despite all the great research, I’m personally not a big fan of yoga. A lot of people swear by it but it’s just not for me. I prefer tai chi. 

Tai chi has also been shown to increase heart rate variability, and researchers think this means it can “enhance vagal modulation” (20).

6. Probiotics

It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve (27).  

Bacteria. Probiotic bacteria can stimulate your vagus nerve and improve your mental health.

In one study, animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behaviour. 

The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood (25). 

Another study found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum normalized anxiety-like behavior in mice by acting through the vagus nerve (26). 

Both Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum are included in the Optimal Biotics supplement

I previously wrote about some other ways you can increase the good bacteria in your gut. You can read about that here.

And here are 7 other probiotic strains that can help treat anxiety. 

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7. Meditation and Neurofeedback

Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.        

Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself (22, 23). 

Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation (21). 

“OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (24). 

I couldn’t find any research demonstrating this, but in my experience, neurofeedback significantly increased my heart-rate variability and vagal tone as measured by my EmWave2

Now that I’m done neurofeedback, I use the Muse headband to meditate. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback on your brainwaves. I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website.

 

8. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.

They often appear in most of my posts because they are so critical for brain and mental health and affect so many aspects of wellness. 

They’ve been shown to help people overcome addiction, repair a “leaky brain”, and even help reverse cognitive decline.

But researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity (35-37, 40). 

Studies shown that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve (34, 38, 39). 

And high fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance” (35). 

That's why I eat lots of wild-caught salmon, as well as supplement with this krill oil

9. Exercise

I’ve already discussed how exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.

But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects (28). 

A man running near the water. Exercise stimulates the vagus nerve.

Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. 

This is my exercise routine:

  • Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week

  • High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week

  • Walk as much as I can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)

Walking, weightlifting and sprinting are the best forms of exercise, but you should choose a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently. 

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10. Zinc

As I’ve discussed before, zinc is an essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with chronic anxiety

One study shows that zinc increases vagus nerve stimulation in zinc-deficient rats (41). 

It’s estimated that 2 billion people in the world are deficient in zinc, and six different studies show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults (42-44).

So, if you struggle with a brain or mental health disorder, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient.  

Some of the best food sources of zinc include oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms and spinach. 

However, I still recommend at least short-term supplementation to ensure you get enough.

I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement to make sure my zinc levels are optimal. 

Check out my previous post about zinc and copper if you’re interested in discovering more steps you can take to increase your zinc levels. 

11. Massage

Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone (31-32). 

A woman getting a massage. Massages improve your mental health by stimulating the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body.

Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response (29). 

Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures (30). 

I personally get a massage from a registered massage therapist every couple of months. 

12. Socializing and Laughing

I’ve already discussed how socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone.

Two men laughing. Laughter and socializing stimulates the vagus nerve.

And now I’ve learned that they are likely doing this by stimulating the vagus nerve. 

Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions (47, 48). 

Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood (49). 

And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another (50). 

So my advice is to hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible. Although I should probably be taking my own advice here, as I’m an introvert and often avoid socializing too much. 

13. Intermittent Fasting

On most days, I don’t eat breakfast at all, and then "break my fast" by eating my first meal of the day around 2 or 3 p.m. That means I eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window.

An empty plate with a fork and knife beside it. Intermittent fasting stimulates the vagus nerve.

There are many health benefits to doing this. As I’ve discussed before, intermittent fasting can boost your brain’s growth hormone, improve mitochondrial function, and may help some people overcome brain fog and cognitive decline

Research also shows that fasting and caloric restriction increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone (33). 

The best way to start fasting is simply by eating dinner around 6, not eating anything after that before bed, and then eating a regular breakfast the next day. That should give you about 12-14 hours of fasting time. 

Conclusion

You don’t have to be controlled by your body and mind. You have the power to tell them what to do. 

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to you body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience. 

Increasing my vagal tone has allowed me to overcome anxiety and depression, and better manage them when they arise.

Overall, I hope you implement some of the above steps into your daily life, and they allow you to live more optimally.

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC

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