What you never knew, you never knew, about the Vagus Nerve.
The vagus nerve is the most extensive nerve you probably didn’t even know you had.
When people use the expression "You're on my last nerve" I think they mean the Vagus Nerve.
The vagus nerve is a long and wandering bunch of motor and sensory fibers that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut. It also branches out to touch and interact with the liver, spleen, gallbladder, ureter, female fertility organs, neck, ears, tongue, and kidneys. It powers up our involuntary nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system—and controls unconscious body functions, as well as everything from keeping our heart rate constant and food digestion to breathing and sweating. It also helps regulate blood pressure and blood glucose balance, promotes general kidney function, helps release bile and testosterone, stimulates the secretion of saliva, assists in controlling taste and releasing tears, and plays a major role in fertility issues and orgasms in women.
Dr. Justin Hoffman, a Santa Rosa, California, licensed naturopathic medical physician, says:
"Without the vagus nerve, key functions that keep us alive would not be maintained."
Nationally recognized sports nutritionist, strength, and conditioning coach Brandon Mentore clarifies:
"The vagus nerve is extremely critical to your overall health and is intimately tied in with multiple organs and systems of the body.
The vagus nerve has fibers that innervate virtually all of our internal organs. The management and processing of emotions happen via the vagal nerve between the heart, brain, and gut, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states."
Emotional processing happens via the vagal nerve between the heart, brain, and gut.
Vagus nerve dysfunction can produce in an entire multitude of problems including obesity, bradycardia (abnormally slow heartbeat), difficulty swallowing, gastrointestinal diseases, fainting, mood disorders, B12 deficiency, chronic inflammation, impaired cough, and seizures.
Meanwhile, the vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to improve conditions such as:
Bad blood circulation
In 2011, other researchers at the University of Amsterdam implanted vagus nerve stimulators into 8 patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune inflammatory condition that causes swollen, tender joints). After 42 days of vagus stimulation — one to four minutes per day — most patients experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms and two of them had a complete remission. Even those who have not experienced clinically significant improvements with the implant insisted that it helped them; nobody wanted it removed.
A Closer Look At This Super Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves. Only the spinal column is a larger nerve system. Nearly 80 percent of its nerve fibers—or four of its five ‘lanes’—direct information from the body to the brain. Its fifth lane runs in the opposite direction, commuting signals from the brain throughout the body. Attached to the brain stem, the vagus moves through the neck and into the chest, splitting into the left vagus and the right vagus. Each of these roads is comprised of tens of thousands of nerve fibers that branch into the heart, lungs, stomach, pancreas and nearly every other organ in the abdomen.
The vagus nerve uses the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
A neurotransmitter is a sort of chemical messenger released at the end of a nerve fiber, that allows for signals to be moved along from point to point, which stimulate various organs.
Acetylcholine is an organic chemical that functions in the brain and body of many types of animals, including humans, as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other cells. Its name is derived from its chemical structure: it is an ester of acetic acid and choline.
For example, if our brain could not communicate with our diaphragm through the deliverance of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve, then we would quit breathing.
Longest cranial nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves.
Some substances such as Botox and the heavy metal mercury can interfere with acetylcholine production. Botox has been known to shut down the vagus nerve, which causes death. Mercury blocks the action of acetylcholine. When mercury attaches to the thiol protein in the heart muscle receptors, the heart muscle cannot receive the vagus nerve electrical impulse for contraction. Cardiovascular problems normally follow. Mercury used in fillings only inches from the brain as well as the 3,000 tons of mercury put into the atmosphere can interfere with acetylcholine production. Mercury-laden vaccines may also play a role in vagus nerve-related autism in children.
Theoretically, anything that helps to improve the presence and function of acetylcholine, will also help to improve the health of our vagus nerve.
Vagus nerve damage can be caused by diabetes, alcoholism, upper respiratory viral infections, or having part of the nerve severed accidentally during an operation. Stress can inflame the nerve, along with fatigue and anxiety. Even something as simple as bad posture can negatively impact the vagus nerve.
The impact of stress
Stress can inflame the vagus nerve, along with fatigue and anxiety.
It’s also believed that diet plays a role in vagus nerve health. An obesogenic ‘cafeteria diet’ (high-fat, high-carb junk food) reduces the sensitivity of the vagus nerve. Spicy foods can also cause it to misfire.
A Feeling In Your Gut
When people say they feel it in their gut, that’s not just imagination.
Our gut instincts are not fantasies but real nervous signals that guide much of our lives and are essential in fear management.
This is because of the enteric nervous system (ENS), which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, communicates with the central nervous system (the brain) through the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain axis. The ENS is sometimes regarded as the secondary brain or backup brain centered in our solar plexus.
We now know that the ENS influences the brain. In fact, about 90 percent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from above, but from the ENS.
Having the gut and vagus nerve gateway healthy impacts our mental health. A study shows how antibiotics can make us aggressive when they upset the microbiome balance in our gut. A study by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, found that certain beneficial gut microbes can actually prevent PTSD.
The signals from your gut get sent to the brain via the vagus nerve, and the signals from the brain travel back to the gut, forming a feedback loop. What if this loop was interrupted – wondered the researchers in a new Swiss study – would that affect innate anxiety and conditioned fear? Turns out it does. In test animals, the brain was still able to send signals down to the stomach, but the brain couldn’t receive signals coming up from the stomach. The research showed that those rats weren’t that afraid to begin with (lower level of innate fear), but once they became afraid, they had trouble overcoming this fear even when the danger was no longer present (longer retention of learned fear). This shows that healthy functioning of the vagus nerve helps us bounce back from stressful situations and overcome fear conditioning.
It plays a role in learning and memory. The same Swiss study (above) found that the rats without gut instincts transmitting to the brain via the vagus nerve required significantly longer to re-associate previously “dangerous” environment with the new, “safe” and neutral situation. This shows that the vagus nerve facilitates learning and re-wiring, so to speak. “These new findings about the vagus nerve offer exciting possibility for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Stimulation of the vagus nerve might be able to speed up the process by which people with PTSD can learn to reassociate a non-threatening stimuli which triggers anxiety with a neutral and non-traumatic experience”(1). It can also help with healing sexual stress and trauma.
Probiotics can help keep the gut and vagus nerve signals in a healthier state, according to a report in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
Mental health and the vagus nerve
Keeping the gut and vagus nerve gateway healthy impacts our mental health.
Probiotics help boost vagal activity, due to its relationship to the gut and digestive functions. Zinc is also an excellent supplement for anyone with stress or mental health issues, which also links back to the vagus nerve.
Boosting With Electricity
Doctors have largely exploited the nerve’s influence on the brain. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), is occasionally used to treat people with epilepsy or depression. VNS is designed to prevent seizures by sending regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve. These pulses are supplied by a device something like a pacemaker. It is placed under the skin on the chest wall and a wire runs from it to the vagus nerve in the neck. Researchers studying the effects of vagus stimulation on epilepsy noticed that patients experienced a second advantage unrelated to seizure decrease: their moods also improved.
A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed how stimulating the vagus nerve with a bioelectronic device “significantly improved measures of disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis,” a chronic inflammatory disease that affects 1.3 million people in the United States and costs tens of billions of dollars annually to treat.
Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), is used to treat epilepsy, depression, and arthritis.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques
The vagus nerve doesn’t need to be jolted into shape. It can also be toned and strengthened similar to a muscle. Here are some simple things you can do that might enhance your health considerably:
Positive Social Relationships – A study had participants think compassionately about others while silently repeating positive phrases about friends and family. Compared to the controls, the meditators showed an overall increase in positive emotions like serenity, joy, and hope after completing the class. These positive thoughts of others led to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart-rate variability. The results also showed a more toned vagus nerve than when simply meditating.
Cold – Cold exposure such as cold showers or face dunking is said to stimulate the nerve as well.
Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases–and this is mediated by the vagus nerve. Any kind of intense cold exposure including drinking ice cold water will produce vagus nerve activation.
Gargling – Another at home treatment for an under-stimulated vagus nerve is to gargle with water. Gargling actually arouses the muscles of the pallet which are ignited by the vagus nerve.
“Typically patients will tear up a bit which is a good sign and if they don’t, we recommend that they do it regularly every day until they notice that they do start tearing up a bit,” says Hoffman. “This has been shown to immediately improve working memory performance.”
Singing And Chanting – Humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing, and upbeat energetic singing all increase heart rate variability (HRV) in slightly different ways. Essentially, singing is like initiating a vagal pump sending out relaxing waves. Singing at the top of your lungs works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus. Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increases HRV and vagus function. Singing has been found to increase oxytocin, also known as the love hormone because it makes people feel closer to one another.
Compassion meditation has been shown to result in a more toned vagus nerve.
Compassion meditation involves silently repeating certain phrases that express the intention to move from judgment to caring, from isolation to connection, from indifference or dislike to understanding.
Massage – You can stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging your feet and your neck along the carotid sinus, located along the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. A neck massage can help reduce seizures. A foot massage help can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. A pressure massage can also activate the vagus nerve. These massages are used to help infants gain weight by stimulating gut function, largely mediated by activating the vagus nerve.
Laughter – Happiness, and laughter are natural immune boosters. Laughter also stimulates the vagus nerve. Research shows how laughter increases HRV in a group environment.
Exercise – 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 leads to beneficial brain and mental health effects. Mild exercise also stimulates gut flow, which is mediated by the vagus nerve.
Yoga And Tai Chi — Both increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic system in general. Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents (fibers),” which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression.
Breathing Deeply And Slowly — Your heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called baroreceptors, which detect blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain. This activates your vagus nerve that connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out, increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation. Breathing around 5-6 breaths per minute in the average adult can be very helpful.
Coffee Enemas — Enemas are like sprints for your vagus nerve. Expanding the bowel increases vagus nerve activation, as is done with enemas. This cleansing is accomplished by increasing the liver’s capacity to detoxify toxins in the blood and binding them to the bile. In the process, the liver cleanses itself as it releases the toxic bile into the small, then large, intestine for evacuation. The entire blood supply circulates through the liver every three minutes. By retaining the coffee 12 to 15 minutes, the blood will circulate four to five times for cleansing, much like a dialysis treatment. The water content of the coffee stimulates intestinal peristalsis and helps to empty the large intestine with the accumulated toxic bile.
Relax – Learning how to chill may be the No. 1 thing to help keep your vagus nerve toned. Many relaxing activities will stimulate the vagus nerve.
Ultimately, this is where the most deeply felt impacts can be found. Reading a book, listening to music, watching children play–whatever it is, my advice is to solicit relaxation and create time in your life for it.