When most of us think of our immune system, the vagus nerve likely isn't something that comes to mind at the same time. But the truth is, these two systems are deeply intertwined, and the vagus nerve plays an essential role in keeping our immune system functioning properly. Optimal immune function is vital for several reasons. For example, it helps us fight off infections, keeps our bodies in balance by maintaining homeostasis, and even supports healing when we become injured or sick.
The vagus nerve is a significant player in promoting immune health. Research suggests it is involved in the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system, facilitating communication between organs such as the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes. It also aids in regulating cytokine production—the powerful proteins secreted by cells when attacked by pathogens or foreign bodies. By doing so, the vagus nerve helps regulate inflammation throughout the body, which can positively affect overall immunity.
Today, we'll explore these relationships in more detail, along with sharing strategies for harnessing the vagus nerve's power to support immunity.
The Role of the Vagus Nerve in Immune Response
So, what is the vagus nerve, and how does it relate to our immune system?
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and is one of the longest nerves in the body, stretching from the brainstem down into your abdomen. It plays a key role in controlling many of our body's processes, including digestion, heart rate, and even our emotions.
Mechanisms by which the vagus nerve regulates immune response
The latest research shows an intricate connection between this major nerve and our immune system.
The vagus nerve facilitates communication between different parts of the immune system, allowing for quicker responses to threats such as infections or injuries. Doing so helps maintain homeostasis within our bodies—even when faced with stressful situations or pathogens.
This also includes communication between the brain and the immune system.
For example, studies have found information sensed by the vagus nerve can be sent directly to our brain's amygdala, which is then interpreted as an emotional response. This helps us better respond and adapt to stressful situations thoughtfully, potentially preventing harmful inflammation and other negative side effects associated with chronic stress.
The vagus nerve also plays an important role in controlling cytokine production within our cells and tissues. Cytokines are proteins secreted by cells when attacked by pathogens or foreign bodies. They help alert our immune system of potential threats and trigger an appropriate response. However, the overproduction of these proteins can lead to systemic inflammation, so regulating their production is essential.
The vagus nerve helps in this process by sending signals that limit the release of cytokines, thus preventing excessive inflammation and promoting overall health.
As this study explains:
"Cytokine synthesis and release is an essential component of the innate immune system, but inappropriate, excessive production results in a generalized systemic inflammatory response which damages distant organs. Recent research has identified an immunomodulatory function of the vagus nerve whereby activation of the efferent arm results in regulation of cytokine production. Termed the 'cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway', this neuro-immune communication provides the host with a fast, discrete, and localized means of controlling the immune response and preventing excessive inflammation."
Natural killer (NK) cell activity
Finally, studies show vagus nerve stimulation has been linked to increased natural killer (NK) cell activity—a type of white blood cell that plays a key role in immunity. This is significant because NK cells can recognize and destroy pathogenic or cancerous cells before they cause any harm.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Now that we know more about the potential of the vagus nerve when it comes to immune health, let's explore some strategies for harnessing its power.
One of the most popular methods for eliciting a response from this major nerve is vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). This type of therapy involves sending electrical signals to the nerve to stimulate it and elicit a response from the body. Studies have found that VNS can reduce inflammation and even help improve mood and quality of life in people with chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis.
There are two main ways to perform VNS: surgically or non-invasively. Surgical VNS requires implanting electrodes into the chest that then send electrical signals directly to the vagus nerve, while non-invasive VNS uses an external device to stimulate the nerve. Both are considered safe and effective in improving symptoms of chronic illnesses.
However, because non-invasive VNS is far less invasive and more accessible, it's the go-to choice for most people who want to try vagus nerve stimulation. On the other hand, if people have severe medical conditions such as epilepsy, gastroparesis, or treatment-resistant depression, they might turn to surgical VNS measures instead.
Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation
One of the most effective non-invasive ways to stimulate the vagus nerve is using a transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation device such as Xen by Neuvana. These vagus nerve-stimulating headphones target the nerve through your ear while you listen to songs or ambient sounds. You can do this from your own home while you go about your life with the help of an easy-to-carry handheld device and a convenient app on your smartphone.
Other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve
Other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve include dietary approaches such as consuming probiotics and prebiotics, practices like yoga or deep breathing, cold exposure, and even activities like massage or acupuncture.
There's evidence that certain foods, such as those containing probiotics or prebiotics, can positively affect the vagus nerve and induce its stimulation. Probiotics are live bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, while prebiotics are dietary fibers that help nourish beneficial gut bacteria. So incorporating these into your diet may help promote the health of your vagus nerve and potentially increase overall immune system function.
Deep breathing exercises
One of the most accessible ways to stimulate the vagus nerve is by performing deep breathing exercises. Taking slow, deep breaths helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of our nervous system responsible for relaxation—which then sends signals to the vagus nerve and encourages it to fire more frequently.
The practice of yoga has a long history of promoting health and relaxation. Certain poses, such as the corpse pose (savasana) and shoulder stand (sarvangasana), are especially beneficial for stimulating the vagus nerve. These poses help relax your body while sending signals to the vagus nerve that can increase activity and promote better immune system function.
Cold exposure is another popular way to stimulate the vagus nerve. For example, immersing yourself in cold water or taking a cold shower can help activate this major nerve and reduce inflammation, among other benefits.
Acupuncture or massage
Finally, acupuncture is another tried-and-true method for stimulating the vagus nerve. This ancient practice has been used for centuries to treat pain, improve digestion, and promote relaxation. Massage therapy is also a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve and reduce inflammation or stress levels in the body.
These methods can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and balance stress hormones in our bodies, thus promoting overall health and well-being—including immune system support.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Benefits
Let's get into these vagus nerve stimulation benefits even more next.
Here are some details about the potential benefits of vagus nerve stimulation for immune system health and other areas.
We've mentioned reducing inflammation a few times, but it's worth re-emphasizing. The vagus nerve has been linked to regulating inflammatory processes in the body. At the same time, certain studies suggest stimulating this nerve could help treat rheumatic diseases like arthritis or chronic pain conditions.
Another potential benefit of stimulating the vagus nerve is its potential role in regulating autoimmune responses. A healthy immune system should not have any difficulty distinguishing between your own cells and foreign cells, but when it fails to do so, autoimmunity can occur. The vagus nerve has been found to help regulate this immune response—meaning that stimulating it could be helpful for those with autoimmune conditions.
Irritable bowel disease is another common gastrointestinal disorder the vagus nerve can influence. This is largely due to the fact IBD is a result of a weakened immune system. However, studies have also shown how stimulating this nerve can help reduce intestinal tract inflammation and promote gut health—which could make it a useful treatment option for those with IBD.
The vagus nerve has been studied extensively regarding mood regulation, as it can help reduce stress and anxiety.
As previously mentioned, surgical VNS is used in cases of treatment-resistant depression in some cases, and it is FDA-approved to do so. In addition, stimulating the vagus nerve has been found to reduce depressive symptoms, particularly in those with more severe cases of depression.
When you're feeling anxious, calming your nervous system and regaining a balance between the fight or flight response and the more relaxing rest and digest response can be helpful. In addition, stimulating the vagus nerve can help reduce anxiety, as it helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and restore balance.
We've seen how vagus nerve stimulation has many potential benefits for immune system health and other areas. These include reducing inflammation, regulating autoimmunity responses, improving IBD symptoms, improving mood, and reducing stress and anxiety.
Lifestyle Factors that Affect Vagus Nerve Function and Immune System Health
Now, let's begin to discuss some lifestyle factors that can affect your vagus nerve function and immune system health.
The first factor is sleep. Not getting enough quality restorative sleep can take a toll on your vagus nerve and its ability to effectively regulate the body's systems. So with that in mind, shoot for 7–9 hours of sleep per night, and feel free to add some relaxation techniques at bedtime or a warm bath for even more therapeutic benefits.
It is also important to practice stress management techniques to keep the vagus nerve functioning optimally. This could include regularly scheduled breaks from work or school, deep breathing exercises, guided meditations, mindfulness practices, yoga, or other forms of exercise.
What you eat is also crucial regarding vagus nerve stimulation and its effects on the immune system. A nutritious diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help keep your body functioning optimally, including the vagus nerve.
Physical activity has also been linked to improved vagal tone and heart rate variability, which can help reduce inflammation and regulate the immune system. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day.
By taking steps to maintain optimal vagal function through lifestyle interventions such as getting enough sleep, managing stress, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly—you can help keep your immune system functioning properly and even improve its response. Doing so may boost your overall health and well-being and reduce the risk of developing illnesses and diseases associated with a weakened immune system.
Final Thoughts: The Vagus Nerve & Immune System Function
It is clear that understanding how the vagus nerve works in relation to our body's systems—particularly the immune system—can be beneficial when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Knowing this connection, we can take proactive measures to ensure our body's systems function correctly and remain healthy and strong.
However, it is important to note that while lifestyle interventions may be beneficial in some cases—in more extreme or chronic conditions, it may be necessary to seek professional medical advice or treatment options. Furthermore, speaking with your healthcare provider before attempting new health practices is always wise. That way, you can be confident whatever you're trying is safe and effective for your unique needs.
If you're ready to learn more about non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation, find out more about the science that backs Xen by Neuvana today.