The vagus nerve is one of our most important cranial nerves. It runs from the brain all the way down to the abdomen. It has the important job of connecting the brain to several organs throughout the body. It also controls things like taste, hearing, touch, and a lot of the motor functions in the heart, digestive tract and throat. Because of this, it can impact gut health, cardiovascular health, and reflexes like swallowing, sneezing and coughing.
Did you know it even has a large impact on the body’s stress response?
When we are presented with a major stressor, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in to help deal with it – this is your fight or flight response. Then, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated in order to restore the body to a calm state, also known as the rest and digest state. The vagus nerve is the main control systems of the parasympathetic nervous system. There is plenty of research about the stimulation of the vagus nerve and its use as treatment for depression, PTSD, IBS and several other conditions. It could even be the missing link to bridge the gap left by pharmacological and nutraceutical treatments for depression.
Symptoms of vagus nerve damage
- Difficulty speaking
- Loss or change in voice
- Trouble swallowing
- Loss of gag reflex
- Slow heart rate
- Changes in digestion
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal bloating
Vagus Nerve and Overall Health
Let’s dive deeper into the different functions of the vagus nerve and its impact on your health.
The vagus nerve has a major role in the calming of our nervous system and fight or flight response. It works to calm down the body once the threat has been removed. Branches of the nerve send signals to internal organs, releasing specific hormones to help restore calm. Hormones like oxytocin (the love hormone) work to calm us down and connect us to our environment and the present moment. This is important in breastfeeding and excitement/connection during intercourse. It also releases vasopressin, which regulates the circadian rhythm and helps with sleep and wakefulness. In short, the stronger the nerve fires, the faster we are able to recover from stress.
Heart contraction are also impacted by the vagus nerve. With rapid heart rate, we are pushing blood through the body without allowing it to become fully oxygenated in the lungs, causing shortness of breath, dizziness, high blood pressure, and headaches. The vagus nerve slows heart rate when acetylcholine interacts with the muscarinic receptors, decreasing atrium contractions, allowing for more time to oxygenate the blood. On the other hand, if the vagus nerve is overstimulated, it can overreact and cause a drop in heart rate or low blood pressure.
Constipation or slow digestion?
The vagus nerve has an answer for that, too! By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can increase motility through the gut to create more regulated bowel movements. It also has an impact on the sphincters of the digestive tract, opening them up and allowing food to pass and enzymes to be made to break down food. Damage to the vagus nerve has been linked to diseases like gastroparesis, a disease causing a feeling of fullness after only a few bites, vomiting of undigested food, abdominal pain, and unregulated blood sugar levels.
Weakened immune system?
A well-functioning vagus nerve creates a well-functioning immune response to fighting off disease and infection. It plays an important role in regulating the body’s innate immune system.
New research is working to target certain parts of the vagus nerve which are responsible for inhibiting inflammatory cytokine signals. If these signals can be controlled by stimulating the vagus nerve, it could work to turn off the cytokines and other inflammatory proteins that cause autoimmune disease. Pain associated with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus can be significantly impacted by this. There is new research showing that stimulating the vagus nerve can even help MS patients to stimulate demyelination, which is destroyed by this autoimmune disease.
Good vagus nerve function is linked to making the body better at regulating glucose levels and reducing the risk of stroke, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Trouble concentrating is a result of certain parts of the brain not firing properly. Stimulating the vagus nerve helps to restore proper pathways for information from internal organs to efficiently get to the brain; thus resulting in quicker nerve firing, less fatigue, and even better memory.
Stimulating the vagus nerve and brain stem can decrease the occurrence of seizures and/or their severity.
Testing for vagus nerve dysfunction
There are a few ways to test the firing of the vagus nerve to determine if it is contributing to in your health condition. First, we can test a patient’s gag reflex. f you are asked to say “AHH” with the tongue depressed and the uvula or palate are deviated, it can be a good indication of a lesion on this nerve, as well. If you don’t have a gag reflex, it may be due to an issue with the vagus nerve and brainstem function. Also, looking at heart rate, blood pressure and cardiovascular responses to different forms of exercise can clue us in to an issue. Neurological testing can also be performed using a pin or cotton swab being pressed to both sides of the face to see if the patient is feeling it bilaterally.
Tips to Stimulate Vagus Nerve
Have you tried some of these tests at home or with a doctor and discovered some dysfunction in your vagus nerve? Here are some simple and effective stimulating tricks that can be done to help restore its function and combat disease:
- Breathing: Deep breathing is one way to help stimulate this nerve. Breathing exercises improve vagal tone and increase parasympathetic activity by producing more GABA that calms the brain. Yoga and meditation are good ways to incorporate breathing into your daily routine.
- Another technique is alternate nostril breathing: Block off one nostril on the inhale and unblock it for exhale. Alternate to the other nostril. Continue this for 5-10 minutes. Click here for a simple video tutorial.
- Cold water immersion: When the body adjusts to cold, activation of the sympathetic nervous system declines and the parasympathetic system increases. Cold showers are a good strategy to achieve this. Start by finishing your shower with 30 seconds of cold water – as cold as you can tolerate – and work your way up to 5 minutes. Wim How is a great resource on cold therapy immersion – check out this YouTube video.
- Reflexology of the foot.
- Ear massage. Branches of the vagus nerve connect to the ear and can be stimulated with massage or even
- Singing loudly or humming
- Activate gag reflex with a toothbrush or tongue depressor
- Touching the white of the eye (with clean hands, of course!)
- Massaging neck and feet
- Probiotics such as lactobacillus increase GABA and function of the vagus nerve.
- Lastly, there are vagal nerve devices that attach to the ear or that can be implanted into the chest to stimulate the nerve if the above techniques are not enough.
As crazy as some of these sound, they can have a profound impact on your overall health. This small nerve is important for so many functions in the body and especially significant in improving quality of life. With so many free and easy ways to make such a big difference in your health, give a few of the above techniques a try and see how it impacts your stress and health.
If you’re not sure if vagal nerve dysfunction or damage is causing your symptoms, give us a call! Our practitioners specialize in getting to the bottom of your health concerns and finding the most efficient and least invasive way to get you on the road back to feeling well.