Did you know that your body contains its own superpower that can help lower high stress?
It’s called the vagus nerve system, and it’s a major part of how your body and brain function.
Without the vagus nerve, you wouldn’t be able to do basic tasks. Through vagal stimulation, also known as “self-hugging,” you can experience powerful health benefits.
Keep reading to learn more about the vagus nerve and the benefits of vagal stimulation. You’ll also learn how you can stimulate the healthy function of your vagus nerve.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is crucial to several different bodily processes, including these critical functions:
- Parasympathetic: Supports respiration, heart rate functioning, and the digestive tract
- Motor: Supports the muscles in the neck responsible for speech and swallowing
- Sensory: Affects the lungs, heart, throat, and abdomen.
- Special sensory: Provides taste sensation behind the tongue
Your body uses its vagus nerve to regulate your fight-or-flight response and parasympathetic mode.
When we experience high levels of stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated in our body to either flee or fight. In our day-to-day lives, stress is inevitable. It’s not something that we can avoid, so it’s hard to quickly remove ourselves from stressful situations.
When periods of chronic high stress are sustained, the body remains in high gear. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol course through the body in response to fear. Chronic high stress can create a variety of health problems. It causes ailments such as chronic pain, anxiety, mood swings, and gut inflammation.
The vagus nerve system acts to counterbalance the fight or flight reflex in our body. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body. It runs from your brain all the way to your large intestine and plays a part in controlled motor and sensory functions like your speech, mood, heart rate, and more.
What Is Vagal Stimulation?
Vagal stimulation is a treatment that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. It’s been shown to help people with chronic conditions like epilepsy, depression, and anxiety.
The vagus nerve is an essential nerve in the body. It’s a crucial part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system helps control involuntary functions like heart rate and digestion. The vagus nerve also has connections to other parts of the brain that control mood and emotions.
Vagal stimulation can be done independently or as part of a treatment called neurostimulation therapy (NST). In NST, researchers use electrodes placed on or in the brain to send electrical impulses through the vagus nerve to help treat chronic pain or depression.
What Are the Benefits of Vagal Stimulation?
Your vagus nerve has a powerful effect on your wellness. Keeping it strong and healthy will enable you to better handle different reactions to such things as mood swings or chronic physical conditions.
It can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve the immune system. It can also help with depression and anxiety as well as provide relief from chronic pain.
1. Treat Depression
Stimulating the vagus nerve does seem to help with depression for many people. A 5-year study into VNS therapy for depression showed that the technique led to a significantly better result than conventional treatments alone when used alongside other treatments.
A second 5-year observational study found more positive outcomes for patients with treatment-resistant depression. In this study, patients receiving VNS treatment showed significant improvements in depression symptoms, which had previously been untreated.
Doctors aren’t quite sure how VNS alleviates symptoms of depression. It seems that it may help with chemical imbalances in the brain, which cause some of the symptoms of depression.
Some medical practitioners compare it to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT is a treatment that involves stimulating parts of the brain with electrical shocks.
The FDA only recommends vegas nerve stimulation for adults 18 and older who have had treatment-resistant depression with some psychological therapy. They also recommend that the patient should keep taking their medication (up to certain prescription doses) while undergoing VNS treatment, as the effects of these medications can lessen the effects of VNS.
2. Minimize Seizures
The FDA has approved vagal nerve stimulation as an addition to standard treatments for adults and children over the age of four with epilepsy. Focal or partial seizures that are not responding to seizure medications can be treated with VNS. This is called drug-resistant epilepsy and only occurs in a certain demographic of epilepsy patients.
A surgical VNS device is implanted under the skin on your left-hand side. An electrode or wire attaches to the machine, which is then placed under the skin. The wire connects to a nerve in your neck.
The device is programmed to deliver pulses or stimulation at regular intervals. A person with a VNS device usually cannot feel the stimulation while it is working.
When someone is aware they’re about to have a seizure, they swipe a magnet over a surgical VNS device to send an extra burst of stimulation to the brain. This may work for seizure sufferers by stopping the episode or even preventing it from happening.
3. Regulate Emotions
Whenever your brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and triggers the fight or flight response. Conversely, whenever you see something calming or safe, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and calms you down.
Automatic responses like heart rate slowing down and digestion returning to normal occur as you relax. Sometimes, the brain remains in panic mode and thinks you are still in danger.
The vagus nerve can help you remain calm in times of stress and know when you’re safe. It helps you “rest and digest,” which is low tone dorsal brain activity. You can improve your vagal tone by using grounding and mindfulness or using a vagus nerve stimulation device.
4. Lower Your Heart Rate
Stimulating the vagus nerve can treat fast heart rates that stem from your heart’s upper chambers or atria. Doctors call this type of heartbeat supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT.
SVT occurs when electrical signals from the atria are out of sync with the SA node and speed up your heart rate. Early beats in the atria cause this and often result in SVTs slowing down or going away entirely after a few minutes.
The vagus nerve takes signals from the sinoatrial node and slows them down before passing them along to the lower chambers of your heart. The effect is a slower heart rate.
5. Reduce Blood Pressure
If the vagus nerve is overactive, it can lead to restrictions in the heart function, leading to circulatory issues. In some cases, this can cause organ damage and loss of consciousness.
6. Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s response to a threat, whether it’s a foreign invader such as a virus, bacteria, or cancer, or a physical or emotional stressor. Your immune system will send chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines to attack the invaders.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines do their job, but when stress is chronic, they can get upregulated in your body. The cycle of chronic stress and the inflammatory response can become habitual over time. Eventually, these cytokines start to damage your body.
Chronic and low-level inflammation starts to have a harmful effect on bodily functions.
Reducing inflammation is the first step in treating several chronic diseases. Chronic inflammation can lead to all sorts of ailments, such as allergies and other chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis.
When coordinating the parasympathetic relaxation response, the vagus nerve releases acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter seems to reduce inflammation in the body. Studies show that stimulating the vagus nerve is a natural way to reduce inflammation and relieve stress.
7. Treat Migraines and Cluster Headaches
Recent clinical trials have looked at VNS for treating different types of headaches, such as migraine and cluster headaches.
In January 2019, the FDA approved VNS to be used to prevent cluster headaches.
Using a VNS device has been shown to substantially reduce the number of cluster attacks per week, as opposed to patients taking only their regular medications. There are no other preventive treatments that have been FDA-approved or cleared to treat cluster headaches.
VNS is an excellent option for patients prone to frequent migraine attacks and want to avoid taking as-needed medications that can result in medication overuse headaches. It’s so unlikely that someone will surpass the treatment threshold that it’s safe to use the device multiple times a day.
Besides being a non-invasive procedure, using the VNS device has few complications. It also poses no significant side effects.
8. Treat Gastrointestinal Disease
If the vagus nerve is damaged or not functioning well, this leads to low stomach acid, low enzyme production, and poor digestion. Stomach acid protects us from harmful bacteria, but we’re susceptible to gut problems when it’s not working properly.
In 2018, researchers at Purdue University carried out an MRI on a person receiving treatment for stomach problems.
The results showed how sending an electric impulse to the vagus nerve successfully corrected the complications. This technique paves the way for new, more precise treatments that couldn’t be achieved by drugs and dietary changes.
Poor vagal nerve function has been shown to contribute to the following conditions:
- Acid reflux, heartburn, or GERD
- IBS (chronic constipation and diarrhea)
- Small intestine bacterial overgrowth
- Inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis)
Stimulating the vagus nerve can provide relief if you suffer from conditions like IBS, SIBO, and GERD.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve Through tVNS
Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) is a cutting-edge and exciting treatment for neurological disorders. Before tVNS, there was surgical vegas nerve stimulation.
Surgical vs. Non-Surgical VNS
Non-surgical versions of VNS take advantage of a small area on the outside of your ear that is innervated by the vagus nerve. Scientific studies have found that general skin stimulation can produce the same fMRI brain activity changes as those that would occur through surgical VNS.
A tVNS device is commonly placed on the ear. The benefit of a non-invasive VNS device is that you can easily control vagus nerve stimulation at home.
Non-invasive VNS is not surgical and does not require a skilled neurosurgeon to recommend, perform or oversee the placing of a device. It is still beneficial to consult a physician before starting any treatment intervention, even a non-invasive stimulator.
Invasive stimulators will cost more, and they are permanent. You may experience more side effects and complications but also a stronger effect on your vagus nerve.
Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulators are easy to use at home, don’t have severe side effects, and are often cheaper than surgical treatments. Studies found that tVNS devices used on the ear trigger an acupuncture point which affects the connectivity between amygdalae, limbic system, and pain receptors.
Other Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
VNS devices are very effective, but there are other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve if you’re in a pinch. You can naturally strengthen your vagus nerve through meditation, massage, exercise, and more.
Meditation is a relaxation technique that will help your mind focus. While focusing on your breathing, you can try to extend your exhales and slow down your heart rate.
Meditation has been proven to regulate your autonomic nervous system and lower things like rapid breathing, heart rate, and cortisol levels.
Research shows that working out and moving your body can improve your vagus nerve health. Endurance and interval training can cause your vagus nerve to fire and your heart rate to be more variable.
Reflexology (a kind of massage) has been shown to decrease blood pressure and increase vagal tone.
Give yourself a foot massage by rotating your ankle back and forth and rubbing the soles of your feet in short strokes. Then, gently stretch your toes from one side to the other and point them down towards the floor.
Experience the Benefits of Vagal Stimulation
The vagus nerve affects your mental and physical health in various ways. Vagal stimulation can help you deal with emotional or physiological challenges more effectively.
Taking care of your vagus nerve can help you regulate the activity of your parasympathetic nervous system. This allows you to feel more grounded.
Shop our tVNS device so you can stimulate your vagus nerve through targeted micro-current stimulation to the ear.