What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve starts at the brain stem, made up of the right and left vagus nerves. The IV then goes through the body, touching the vital organs, and ends in the gut. The vagus nerve is responsible for communication between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. The vagus nerve is responsible for transmitting information between the organs and the nervous system. It plays a role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
The Importance of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve helps to send signals from the brain to different organs in the body, like the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines. The cochlea can take signals from the ear organs and send them back up to the brain. The vagus nerve is a two-way street. Though we usually think of the brain as the part of the body that controls everything, the gut has just as much influence over the body’s response to things like food.
The vagus nerve is able to communicate information about the gut to the brain, which can sometimes result in symptoms like brain fog.
The vagus nerve also plays a role in:
- Motor function: enervates the neck muscles, such as those used for swallowing
- Parasympathetic response: controls digestion, heart rate, and breathing
- The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis: the HPA controls cortisol release and regulates hormonal balance
- Stress management: a lot of stress can overwhelm the vagus nerve, resulting in a vicious cycle that compounds stress over time (remaining in a state of fight or flight vs. homeostasis)
- Brain-gut and gut-brain communication
- Managing the fear response
- Modulating systemic inflammation.
You can see that people with mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as gut-related conditions and dysfunction of the nervous system, most likely have some form of damage to their vagus nerve. If you experience long periods of stress, it will probably affect the way your vagus nerve functions.
Do You Have Good Vagal Tone?
A good vagal tone means that the vagus nerve is operating well. Toning a muscle makes it healthy and strong. Some of the signs of a good vagal tone include a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute or less, a blood pressure of less than 120/80 mmHg, and a respiratory rate of less than 18 breaths per minute.
- Healthy digestion and motility: A key sign of healthy vagal tone is solid, clockwork digestion. You’re having a bowel movement every day, or ideally after every meal. You can easily digest your food. Constipation is a rare occurrence, if it occurs at all. This is a sign that your brain is communicating well with your gut and vice versa, all via the vagus nerve.
- You bounce back from stress easily: In an everyday stressful situation, you feel the impact of that stress, but it doesn’t overwhelm you or cause you to shut down at the moment. You can handle the situation and return to a calm state when it’s over. This is a sign that your vagus nerve can easily switch into a parasympathetic state after a sympathetic (stress-based) response.
- A generally content, peaceful mood: Basically, you’re chill. You operate from a calm, content, rational state of mind. When challenges come up, you don’t freak out or shut down, instead approaching the situation with a level head. Anxiety and depression are not really an issue for you.
How many of these describe you? Two out of three? One? Zero? If you could not relate to any of the characteristics mentioned, you are not alone. There are many chronic health issues that can disrupt the body’s natural balance, including IBS, hormone imbalances, and chronic constipation.
There is good news in that you can’t hurt yourself by supporting your vagus nerve, whether vagus nerve dysfunction is the cause of the issue or not. At the very least, it is a good idea to support the body’s ability to deal with stress. If you have tried many different therapies without success, this may be the one that makes a difference.
When You’ve Tried it All, the Missing Key Might Be Your Vagus Nerve
Let’s use an example of chronic constipation. You’ve been dealing with chronic constipation for several months, ever since you experienced an extremely stressful event. If you’ve been having trouble going to the bathroom regularly, or if it seems like it’s getting worse, it could be due to a long period of stress, like what we’re experiencing with the pandemic. Your gut just doesn’t want to move. You have attempted many of the usual methods: modifying your diet, working out often, taking probiotics, using additional vitamin and mineral supplements, and consuming prokinetics like aloe or vitamin C.
Despite your best efforts, you cannot seem to find relief from constipation. As a result, you may feel irritable and easily overwhelmed. In the past, you were able to face work-related difficulties with assurance, but now you feel stressed and agitation all day long. What’s the deal?
One situation where a vagus nerve-specific intervention may be helpful is when the person has difficulty communicating. The vagus nerve helps regulate the movement of food through the digestive tract. When it’s not working properly, the movement of food can slow down or speed up. This person experienced a highly stressful event that led to their symptoms. This may have interfered with the vagus nerve and caused a sequence of disruptions that eventually led to slow motility.
The reactivation of a particular nerve may help to improve this individual’s digestion, mood, and ability to cope with stress. This probiotic can also make other therapies more effective, like probiotics and vitamins. We will now look at how to do that more closely.
How To Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is crucial for maintaining good health. FDA-regulated devices can be implanted in the body. It sends electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve.
There are many benefits of cold therapy, such as faster recovery from exercise and improved immune function. The vagus nerve is activated by acute cold exposure, according to a 2001 study. This activation occurs through pathways involving cholinergic neurons and nitrergic neurons. This means that exposure to cold can also increase the activity of the vagus nerve, which leads to a decrease in the sympathetic response (the fight or flight response).
Deep, slow breathing is known to help induce relaxation. As mentioned before, too much vagal stimulation can cause relaxation, but the opposite is also true. Relaxation can stimulate the vagal nerve. Breathing deeply can help relax the body and improve the vagal tone. This will make it easier to get into a relaxed state in the future!
Singing, Humming, Gargling
Singing and humming have been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Singing and humming can be relaxing because it lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. The vagus nerve is attached to the vocal cords. The research found that singing, humming, and Gargling can help activate the frontal cortex. Chewing also increases activity in the vagus nerve, which helps to start the digestive process. Chewing gum has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which has many benefits.
I have talked about how beneficial intermittent fasting can be to your health. Intermittent fasting can improve mitochondrial and cognitive function. It has also been shown to improve metabolism and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
The health benefits of intermittent fasting may be due to its ability to stimulate the vagus nerve, which improves the body’s overall tone. A 2003 study found that fasting enhances the activity of the vagus nerve.
The scientific community has conducted extensive research on the benefits of wave vibration. This therapy involves standing on a plate that produces low-level vibrations. The vibrations from the machine cause positive stress on the body, similar to the type of stress caused by exercise. The stress activates the vagal nerve, which is located in the body.
Probiotics are beneficial for many ailments, including digestive problems and skin issues. Probiotics may stimulate the vagus nerve, which is helpful. According to a 2011 study, Lactobacillus Rhamnosus increases GABA production in mice, which leads to decreased stress, depression, and anxiety-related behavior.
Probiotics had no effect on people without a vagus nerve. This suggests that the improved stress resilience was due to the activation of the vagus nerve.
Healthy Fats and Omega-3s
The study found that people who consume a lot of fish have a nervous system that is predominantly relaxed, with enhanced activity of the vagus nerve. The researchers concluded that the high omega-3 content in fish was the likely cause of these findings. This is the reason I take an omega-3 supplement daily.
Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. The vagus nerve may be stimulated by this. Being active might be the key to relaxation. A 2010 study showed that light exercise can help improve digestion by stimulating the emptying of the stomach. They discovered that this happened because of vagal stimulation.
Studies have indicated that massage therapy may help to stimulate the vagus nerve. The 2012 study found that premature infants who were massaged gained more weight because of the vagal activity. One of the reasons we use different massaging techniques and tools at home is that they can be effective in different ways.
Foot reflexology can also help improve vagal tone. The study found that foot reflexology increased vagal modulation, decreased sympathetic modulation, and lowered blood pressure.
Laughter and Social Enjoyment
We know that laughter and being around friends and family is a good ways to relax. A study from 2013 found that there is a connection between physical health, emotional health, and social enjoyment. Social interactions that are positive in nature can help improve one’s mood, which can in turn lead to a better vagal tone. This then improved physical health.
The study showed that good emotions, social connections, and physical health all influence each other in a way that makes them continue improving. The study also found that regularly meditating and using positive affirmations can help people get into this upward spiral.
Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medicine treatment, may help stimulate the vagus nerve. Research shows that ear acupuncture can benefit the following:
- cardiovascular regulation
- respiratory regulation
- gastrointestinal tract regulation
Put simply, foot reflexology can help to lower blood pressure by affecting the vagus nerve – this was shown in a study from 2012.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)
The small electrical device is placed in the chest which is wired to the vagus nerve in the neck. The device emits a low-level electrical current that stimulates the nerve’s anti-inflammatory and nervous system-calming effects.
Traditional VNS is an invasive procedure, but it has been proven effective in treating things like treatment-resistant epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, and even severe depression. In other words, most of us won’t be able to get this procedure done, and it also comes with the usual risks of surgery and having a medical device implanted. This is good news because it means that there is a method that does not require surgery to help the vagus nerve. This method uses electrical stimulation to help the vagus nerve.
Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS)
Transcutaneous (auricular) vagus nerve stimulation uses a TENS device. TENS devices are electrical nerve stimulation devices that have been used for decades to reduce pain and relax tense muscles. You can attach the TENS device to a lead that has a small clip. This is for the tragus, which is part of your outer ear.
The vagus nerve can be stimulated through a pathway that is similar to an implanted device. Research on electrical therapy has shown promising results for treating many conditions in a less invasive way. Moreover, traditional VNS is a continuous therapy, while tVNS can be employed for shorter sessions a few times a day, thus reducing the risk of any side effects that continual stimulation may cause.
More research is needed to determine how effective tVNS is for various conditions, but early signs are promising. In a trial with 34 patients suffering from clinical depression, half of them were given tVNS treatments, while the other half were given sham treatments as a control group. The true tVNS patients saw significant improvements in the default mode network (DMN) of the brain, which is responsible for self-representation and emotional processing.
Additional studies have been conducted on patients with:
- Lupus erythematosus, resulting in reduced pain and fatigue
- Stroke, improving upper limb and sensory function
- Tinnitus, relieving symptoms
- Cardiovascular disease modulates the state of autonomic dominance (stress) that often accompanies many heart conditions.
Further studies using tVNS are being conducted on fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even early treatment for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. The potential therapeutic applications for tVNS are amazing and truly inspiring.
If you’re not interested in cognitive therapy, there are other options that can be just as effective over time, like changing your diet or lifestyle. Diet changes, like adding more choline or macrominerals, or practicing yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, can have a profound effect on your health.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation is Good for Health!
The vagus nerve is receiving a lot of attention lately for the incredible things it can do for health. As science continues to explain the mechanisms of the mind-body connection, methods like this are gradually becoming more accepted.
Stimulating the vagus nerve is simple, easy, and accessible, and has a low cost. This makes it a good way to improve your physical and emotional health.
In conclusion, I don’t mind looking silly if it means my children will learn about a less well-known body system (like the vestibular system) and how to take care of it.