If you have noticed digestion issues like heartburn or have had a couple of fainting episodes lately, you may have a problem with your vagus nerve. The tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, is one of the twelve nerves exiting from your skull. These nerves link the brain to various parts of your face like the eyes, tongue, and nose, as well as the torso.
You may have seen the social media trend claiming various health benefits of releasing or stimulating the vagus nerve. These claims range from benefits for mental health like reducing anxiety and depression to multiple parts of your physical body like the heart, digestion, and immune system. That is why here we discuss if there is any credibility to such claims and see if vagus nerve treatments like vagus nerve stimulation offer any benefits.
Before we delve into various management options available, let’s first discuss the disorders that involve the vagus nerve. While other cranial nerves primarily supply the head, face, and neck areas, the vagus nerve descends the neck and innervates different body parts in the neck, thorax, and abdomen. For example, it supplies vocal cords in the neck, heart in the thorax, and stomach in the belly (1).
The Vagus nerve mainly carries nerve fibers of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls various involuntary functions — functions you can not control consciously — in your body, like digestion and heart rate (2). That is why disorders of the vagus nerve manifest in digestive problems or blood pressure changes. These disorders may include:
The vagus nerve is very long and carries signals between the brain and the heart, lungs, and digestive system, hence the wandering nerve. As a result, damage to the vagus nerve anywhere along its path affects many body areas.
Many conditions can lead to vagus nerve damage like diabetes, viral infections, abdominal surgery, or prolonged stress. Although symptoms depend on the location of nerve damage, you may experience any of the following:
Damage to the vagus nerve may result in a condition called gastroparesis, in which the stomach can not empty properly. As a result, you may experience various symptoms due to problems with the digestive system like nausea, vomiting, and bloating. Gastroparesis commonly occurs in people with diabetes in whom vagus nerve damage prevents stomach and intestine muscles from working properly (3).
The Vagus nerve supplies the heart with parasympathetic fibers that help decrease the heart rate. However, when it gets over-stimulated, it may lead to an extremely low heart rate and blood pressure — resulting in fainting. The condition is known as vasovagal syncope (4). Vasovagal syncope may occur due to certain situations like pregnancy, emotional stress, pain, hunger, and extreme heat, but the cause is not always clear.
There is growing evidence that the vagus nerve plays a vital role in managing many health conditions like depression, heart diseases, and digestive issues. The Vagus nerve helps reduce inflammation — the primary cause of many health conditions. Some of the treatments to offset the symptoms of vagus nerve damage include:
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) involves implanting a device in a person's body that sends electrical impulses to stimulate the left vagus nerve. Nearly one-third of the people with epilepsy do not respond to medications, and vagus nerve stimulation may be an option for these people (5). Experts believe VNS helps reduce the frequency of seizures among epilepsy patients.
In addition to treating epilepsy, vagus nerve stimulation may prove beneficial for people with chronic depression. However, it is not the first-line treatment and is only considered for people who do not respond to medications, psychotherapy, or other management options (6).
Some research suggests that the vagus nerve may mediate inflammation, metabolic diseases, and heart diseases (7). If so, vagus nerve stimulation may help treat a range of conditions like Alzheimer's and cluster headaches (8) (9). However, more research is needed to confirm this.
A healthcare provider implants the device under the skin of the chest. A wire connects the device to the left vagus nerve, and the device sends mild electrical signals to the brain through the vagus nerve. These signals are painless and help calm down the irregular electrical activity in the brain. Although a neurologist programs the device, a handheld magnet can also help control it at home.
Your vagal response decreases as you age, causing an increased heart rate and blood pressure (10). Furthermore, people with a robust vagal tone find it easier to relax after a stressful event and are better equipped to manage blood sugar (11) (12). But the problem is Vagus nerve stimulation has only been approved for drug-resistant epilepsy and chronic depression. And you can not get an implant to boost your mood, reduce stress or improve overall health.
Fortunately, you can stimulate your vagus nerve in many other ways. To reap the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation, try out the following habits:
This ancient tradition has many benefits for the mind and body alike, and you can also turn to it to stimulate your vagus nerve. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system — involved with rest and digest functions — and counteracts the sympathetic nervous system — involved with flight or fight responses.
When meditating, extend exhales to make them longer than inhales. Yoga can also help, but what is essential is mindfulness. It will help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, it is good at lowering rapid breathing and cortisol levels -- the primary stress hormone in the body.
The link between exercise and the activity of your autonomic nervous system — consisting of both sympathetic and parasympathetic — is well established (13). Research suggests endurance exercise increases your vagus nerve activity and leads to less variability in heart rate and blood pressure.
Exercise induces an increase in vagal tone and can offset the effects of chronic stress and negative mood on the vagus nerve that decrease vagal activity (14). Exercise leads to a balance in sympathetic and parasympathetic activity and is good for heart health. In addition, exercise also attenuates inflammation by stimulating the vagus nerve.
Apart from stimulating the vagus nerve, exercise reduces stress, anxiety, and depression in different ways, such as by releasing endorphins — the feel-good hormones in the body.
You may have often seen athletes performing cold water immersion after an exercise. The reason is cold water immersion and cold water therapy are well-known interventions to reduce stress and improve performance in the short term (15).
Research suggests cold immersion, especially cold stimulation in the side of the neck, improves vagal response and reduces heart rate and heart rate variability (16). To destress yourself and improve performance, take a cold shower or try placing an ice pack on your face and neck.
The research is unclear whether singing or listening to music does any good (17). However, many people believe humming or singing, or just listening to soothing music improves the vagal tone and brings the stress and anxiety levels down.
These claims may have some truth to them as the vagus nerve supplies your vocal cords. Since singing or humming improves vocal cord activity, it may also increase nerve conduction in the vagus nerve. Although more research is needed to verify these claims, there is no harm in singing or listening to calm, soothing music. Loud gurgling may help in this regard.
Reflexology — a kind of foot or hand massage -- may also help reduce stress and anxiety. Research shows foot massage increases vagal tone and may even decrease blood pressure (18).
There are various techniques to perform reflexology. However, they ultimately boil down to applying pressure over various points of the foot or hand. Start by massaging your feet and then try out different techniques if it does not work.
While meditation does lead to deep and slow breathing, special breathing exercises may offer additional benefits. Breathing improves the oxygen supply to the brain and different parts of the body — reducing the need for the heart to contract faster. Thus breathing improves vagal tone and reduces stress.
Aim for six breaths per minute, with exhales longer than inhales as exhales are linked with relaxation. Breath deeply from the abdomen and think of expanding the thorax while inhaling.
While vagal stimulation looks beneficial for the mind and body, more research is needed. However, initial research is quite promising, and the field will only grow from here onwards. While the vagus nerve stimulation device is appropriate for people with epilepsy or chronic depression, you can give behavioral and lifestyle modifications a try.