Kids get on them, situations test them. You apparently have a last one…
And without them, you wouldn’t be able to do a single thing on your own.
And while we have dozens of major nerves and hundreds upon thousands of minor ones, there is one nerve that could be argued to be among the most important for you to how you feel on a day-to-day basis.
You’ve probably heard about it before, and you’ve likely felt the effects of your vagus nerve being negatively stimulated in just the past few weeks.
It is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system which means it’s also one of the most critical nerves for total health. It starts in your brain stem and travels through your chest and ends in the abdomen.
It also serves the purpose of helping provide information for locomotion (movement) as well as passing signals back to your brain so you can sense what’s going on in the world around you.
If your vagus nerve quit working today then it would mean your heart would stop beating correctly, your blood pressure would become erratic, your digestive system would seize up and you would stop talking (among other things.)
You can tell when your vagus nerve has been stimulated negatively by the presence of something called the "vasovagal reflex.”
Vasovagal reflex is often triggered when there is a sudden (and often violent) stimulation of the vagus nerve. When this reflex is in full effect you may notice a precipitous drop in blood pressure as well as your heartbeat slowing down.
There are multiple ways to generate a vasovagal reflex, not limited to (but generally because of) pain caused by injury in the region of the nerve, intense fright or stress, as well as gastrointestinal illness, or in response to pain, fright. or sudden stress.
Stimulating the vagus nerve can have therapeutic effects (such as stopping episodes of supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) or hiccups), and can help doctors diagnose certain kinds of heart murmurs. Vagal stimulation can be achieved quite easily by employing the Valsalva maneuver.
The vagus nerve is so important that in the past few decades researchers have endeavored to figure out how we can manipulate and stimulate it to increase bodily function, and that’s what I intend to talk to you about today.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Great For Human Health
Stimulating the vagus nerve to improve health isn’t necessarily new.
Because it’s such a prominent nerve and you can instantly see the results of stimulating it, there’s been a great interest to figure out therapies to help get the vagus nerve to work for us, not against us.
In decades past there were all kinds of procedures that doctors used to stimulate the vagus nerve, and not all of them were ideal.
For instance, they used to do something called a “vagotomy” (cutting the vagus nerve) to help treat peptic ulcer disease. Unfortunately, performing a vagotomy could cause some adverse effects.
The good news is in recent years there are an incredible amount of opportunities to boost vagal nerve function. And best of all, they’re not intrusive nor do they have severe side effects.
Some of these can be performed by yourself, and others, aren’t intensive and can be done at a clinic like ours to help find relief from various issues. And of course, in more serious cases, there are surgical interventions.
People who wish to do the following can benefit from these treatments.
- Minimize seizures in those with epilepsy.
- Treat depression.
- Regulate your emotions.
- Reduce blood pressure.
- Lower your heart rate.
- Reduce inflammation.
- Treat migraines and cluster headaches.
Let’s start with what you can do from the comfort of your home.
Bear in mind that these exercises for stimulation may not help someone with severe trauma, but there are safe interventions for trauma that we can do at the office.
I’ve written extensively about the benefits of meditation, and it happens that it can also help with stimulating the vagus nerve.
Meditation can help to lower your heart rate which can help regulate your autonomic nervous system (which the vagus nerve helps to control). Headache and facial pain specialist Emad Estemalik, says meditation “has a good effect on lowering rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, and cortisol levels.”
2 - Exercise:
If I had a dollar for every time exercise offered to help fix serious issues with health, then I’d have a trillion dollars.
Stimulating the vagus nerve via exercise is not a novel approach for health, but certainly an effective one.
Research indicates that certain kinds of exercise (like interval training and zone 2 cardio training), help to stimulate the vagus nerve. It does this by affecting your heart rate and HRV.
Dr. Estemalik says “Exercise lowers your sympathetic nervous activity and controls your parasympathetic response so that you have a good balance when it comes to your cardiovascular and respiratory function.”
3 - Getting LOST in Music and Singing Out Loud:
The power of music for healing is evident to anyone who’s gone through a difficult time and found that listening to a song helps to lift them out of their funk.
While there’s not a mountain of evidence to show that music is a preferred modality for stimulating the vagus nerve, what we know is this.
The vocal cords are directly connected to the vagus nerve. If you can find music that you enjoy, that causes you to want to sing along, you should as it could help to stimulate the vagus nerve.
The combination of neurotransmitter release (music can help to release dopamine), and vocal cord stimulation may help tremendously.
If singing out loud makes you uncomfortable, a throaty hum could also help ;)
4- Cold-Water Plunges:
I recently wrote an article on how cold water exposure can help to extend life and increase the quality of life.
It can also help with the vagus nerve.
Research on 61 participants indicated cold water exposure helps to slow the heart rate and increase HRV.
If cold water exposure is too much, you can try putting an ice pack on your head and neck or taking cold showers.
5 - Deep Breathing:
Health coach D’Elia Assenza says deep breathing can help to stimulate the vagus nerve.
You can try something called the box, or square breath: Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and hold for a count of 4. Repeat as many times as you need. Deep breathing tricks your body into thinking, “I can’t possibly be running for my life if I’m breathing this slowly.”
Medical Interventions for Vagus Nerve
Here at our office, we use something called a Gammacore.
These are helpful for people who need direct and powerful stimulation but don’t want to undergo surgery.
You can learn about the Gammacore here on their site
They work like a clicker that you place on your head that sends an electrical impulse into your body that will help to stimulate the nerve.
People who suffer from migraines and cluster headaches find tremendous relief from these devices.
I mentioned surgeries, but I don’t want to get into the different kinds as I think that’s best reserved for conversations with patients when we’ve established what caused the vagus nerve to get so damaged, and seen if we’ve exhausted all available options.
The point here is that vagus nerve stimulation is a frontier of medical intervention.