How to Stimulate your Vagus Nerve with Essential Oils

by Jodi Cohen

The most important thing you can do for your health during the pandemic (and every day) is to activate your body’s ability to heal.

Stimulating your Vagus Nerve is the key to turning on your immune system and turning off stress and inflammation.  

Essential oils offer the easiest, most effective, non-invasive strategy to stimulate your vagus nerve and help activate your ability to stay calm and stay healthy.


Turning Off Your “Fight or Flight” Response

When your brain senses a threat, it activates your vagus nerve to activate your body’s “fight-or-flight” survival response.  Ideally, the danger is short lived and your vagus nerve then signals your body to shift back into your parasympathetic “rest, digest and recover” state of your nervous system so you can feel  safe and calm and turn on your immune system, your ability to digest food and your ability to detoxify.

Unfortunately, when stress doesn’t have a definitive ending — such as the uncertainty surrounding when we might be able to return to life as normal – you can stay stuck in the “fight or flight” state.  Fortunately, you can activate your vagus nerve with essential oils to reset your “rest and digest” state amidst the chronic stress.

Social connection is a key way to trigger your vagus nerve.  As the longest nerve in your body, it energizes almost every organ between your intestines and your brain, traversing through your gut, diaphragm, lungs, neck, throat, and eyes. Any activity involving these areas of your body — including deep breathing, gargling, humming, or even social cues like smiling or making eye contact — activate the vagus nerve to trigger your relaxation response.


Calming Your Fear Response

Your fear response is triggered by a part of the brain called your amygdala.  It is constantly monitors your environment for danger. Your amygdala works closely with the logical, rational part of your brain known as your pre-frontal cortex which lies behind your forehead.

To illustrate how this works, imagine that you are walking in the woods and think you see a snake.  If you feel yourself starting to panic, that is your amygdala triggering your survival response. Now, if it occurs to you to double check and notice that what you perceived as a a dangerous snake is actually a harmless stick, that indicates that your amygdala has a healthy connection with your frontal cortex and you can calmly check facts before responding in a fear state.

Healthy communication between your amygdala and your frontal cortex helps calm your fear response.  When communication to the frontal cortex is compromised, the amygdala response can heighten, leading to a more intense and extended fear response, commonly known as an “amygdala hijack”.

Fortunately, research shows that activating your vagus nerve helps enhance communication between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala, which calms amygdala activity.  This allows you to think clearly and calmly process through your emotions which can help you calm your fear, boost your mood and reduce your stress level.

If you know external stressors aren’t going to change anytime soon, it’s important to minimize your perception of the threat by shifting how you respond mentally.  You can do this by activating your vagus nerve and intentionally steering your thoughts in a more positive direction. The easiest way to do this is to initiate a gratitude practice – simply taking a moment to intentionally acknowledge out loud could cause the brain to send messages through the vagus nerve, triggering calm in all the organs and systems along the way.


How to Stimulate your Vagus Nerve with Essential Oils

Essential oils are natural, non-invasive, easy tools to use to activate your vagus nerve.  They possess both olfactory (smell) and transdermal (topical application) qualities, making them easy to inhale and apply on the skin to activate your vagus nerve.

Research backs this up as inhaling essential oils such as lavender or bergamot has been shown to activate your vagus nerve as measured by improved heart rate variability. Inhaled essential oils travel directly to your brain (specifically to the prefrontal cortex behind your forehead) where they can immediately help calm the fear response in your brain.  In addition, topically applied essential oils can cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate your vagus nerve within the brain.


Topical Application of Essential Oils to Activate Your Vagus Nerve

Topical Application can be a powerful tool.  Your skin is relatively permeable to fat-soluble substances like essential oils, making topical, or transdermal, application extremely effective. Topical application also bypasses the stomach and liver, which can chemically alter the therapeutic effects of drugs and essential oils.

It is important to note that different application points yield different results. You can significantly amplify your results by intentionally applying essential oils on specific healing points known as acupuncture points or reflexology points that are correlated with specific organ systems or regions of the brain, like the vagus nerve.

For example, acupuncture points behind the ear and around the neck are the most effective points for stimulating the vagus nerve. A neural anatomy study showed the vagus nerve is most accessible for stimulation via the lower half of the back ear.  Research on “acupuncture and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) found that acupuncture points produce clinical benefits through stimulation of the vagus nerve and/or its branches in the head and neck region that are anatomically proximate to vagus nerve pathways there, where the VNS electrode is surgically implanted.”

Topically applying stimulatory essential oils, like Parasympathetic™, behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone can stimulate the vagus nerve where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin. Research has shown a strong decrease in inflammatory symptoms from stimulation of three minutes a day, indicating that less might be more. We recommend applying  Parasympathetic™ to vagus nerve three times daily, ideally before meals.


Inhaling Essential Oils to Activate Your Vagus Nerve

Your sense of smell has a direct pathway into the survival part of your brain because of the critical role it plays in helping to keep you safe. Your sense of smell helps you detect danger signals that could threaten your survival, like predator odor signals. These danger- signaling scents stimulate an instinctive fear response, known as your stress response, which enables you to mobilize energy and resources quickly, so you can survive the threat of danger.

Your sense of smell can also be used to calm your danger response.  Noble prize-winning researcher Linda Buck found that rose essential oil can counteract your brain’s response to predator odor and fear. Her research found that inhaling rose essential oil in the presence of other fear stimulus can suppress your brain’s stress responses and hormonal signals.

It’s interesting to note that your olfactory nerve travels directly to your prefrontal cortex through a bone known as the cribriform plate at the top of your sinuses, allowing smell to help enhance the prefrontal cortex and calm the amygdala and your fear response.

Inhalation through your nose followed by a long exhale from your mouth is a form of diaphragmatic breathing that stimulates your vagus nerve, since the vagus nerve passes through your diaphragm. Exhaling longer than you inhale also helps to activate your vagus nerve.

It is also calming to inhale essential oils through your left nostril (which travels directly to your left frontal lobe) to help calm anxiety.  Functional neurologist Dr. Titus Chiu explains that anxiety can be triggered by over-activity and dominance of the right frontal lobe of your brain. The right brain processes the emotional aspects of the human experience, giving us empathy and compassion, but in overdrive, the right brain can contribute to heightened emotions and anxiety.

Activating your left frontal lobe can balance the over-activity of the right frontal lobe. This creates balance between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which then leads to feelings of calm and helps halt anxiety attacks.

The easiest way to inhale essential oils is just to place the bottle an inch or two under your nose and breathe deeply, fully inhaling the oil for 3 – 7 breaths.  Remember to exhale deeply to activate your diaphragm and your vagus nerve.



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About The Author

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.

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Subscribe to Vibrant Blue Oils and receive weekly information on oils and how to use them. As a bonus, we’ll send out Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils to your inbox immediately!