Recruiting the Vagus Nerve 4: the practice of gratitude

Did you know that the simple act of counting your blessings is actually powerful medicine. that can make measurable changes to your body? The practice of gratitude has been scientifically proven to not only positively affect our psychological health but also improve numerous physiological markers.

This series is about showcasing all the methods I’ve learned that have been proven by science to target the Vagus Nerve, many of which have been practiced for millennia by practitioners of different spiritual and philosophical traditions. What all of these practices do is to improve what neuroscientists call ‘vagal tone’ – that is, our ability to adapt and shift our nervous system responses in a way that is appropriate to the actual level of threat or safety in the environment. Poor vagal tone results in us under-estimating or over-estimating a particular threat and thus generating a nervous system response that is either too passive or too active.

There are both ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ approaches to recruiting the Vagus Nerve to improve vagal tone. Bottom up approaches are those that directly work on the body. Top down approaches start with the mind. Both can be effective because the fibres of the VN are both efferent and afferent, meaning that they send information from the brain to the body and to the brain from the body.

Practicing gratitude is a top-down practice that has been proven to improve vagal tone. This may seem surprising, since gratitude is thought of as simply an emotion, but if neuroscience is teaching us anything it is that the mind/body system is reciprocal. Remember that the Vagus Nerve is the connection pathway that comes into play when the nervous system receives signals that the body is safe. When we experience the feeling of gratitude, we feel safe, because gratitude is a feeling of abundance, that counteracts feelings of lack or scarcity. In fact, we cannot truly feel gratitude unless we feel safe to some degree because gratitude is an emotion that requires a certain openness and relaxation. It is a connected emotion – that calibrates us to our less egocentric Self and tunes us in more with the people and environment around us.

Dr. Stephen Porges, who developed the Polyvagal Theory that I discuss in this series, says that practicing gratitude actually generates all kinds of neurochemical changes that signal the brain that you are safe and therefore available to vagal activity. And so gratitude is protective in the sense that it protects us from falling into negative states that are anxiety or fear-driven.


A practice of gratitude has been shown to reduce doctor’s visits, improve cardiac function, improve sleep and decrease inflammation while also lifting mood, alleviating depression, and increasing optimism and an overall sense of well-being. Scientists have discovered that the more you practice gratitude, the more you can maintain a positive outlook.­­ In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, after only two weeks of a daily gratitude practice, participants reported feeling more hopeful, that they appreciated their life more, and could deal better with everyday challenges.

Another study followed the reports of participants who kept a daily gratitude journal. They reported feeling 15% more optimistic, experienced a 25% improvement in sleep quality and were overall 10% happier, which apparently is the same increase in happiness you get from doubling your income.

The National Institute of Health in the US performed a study using MRIs to show that subjects who focused on gratitude had an increase in blood flow to the hypothalamus-the almond-size part of your brain just above your brainstem that controls stress and sleep. Enhanced activity in this part of the brain inhibits the stress hormone, cortisol, known to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Expressing gratitude to your partner has also been shown in a study to improve communication and good feelings between you.

So every time you focus on gratitude, you are helping to combat the blues, anxiety and insomnia – and improve your relationships!

Sounds too simple to be true? Why not try it and see for yourself?


One way that is very simple and effective is to keep a journal by your bedside and every evening or morning depending on your preference, write down 3 things that you’re grateful for. It can be something as fundamental as sunshine. It can be a specific person in your life. A food you love, or a book that has inspired you. Really, anything at all. After you’ve written your three things, spend a few minutes contemplating each one, and allowing the feelings around that to arise and just be with that. Keep this journal for 10 days. If you run out of things to write down, you can always repeat some. The point is the practice itself, not the details.

Personally, I have found a gratitude practice to be a sure-fire way to shift my mood. Within only a few minutes, I experience more spaciousness and more heart-centred awareness. And interestingly, while going through some grieving for lost loved ones, a gratitude practice around my relationship with them has allowed me to replace the sadness and loss with a sense of abundance and appreciation for having had that person in my life and sharing those moments together.

The science behind a daily gratitude practice

A social-cognitive model of trait and state levels of gratitude

Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life

Examining pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health Across Adulthood http

A pilot randomized study of a gratitude journaling intervention on HRV and inflammatory biomarkers in Stage B heart failure patients