Behold one of the best kept secrets of modern medicine, the vagus nerve. This amazing nerve is part of your body's autonomic nervous system and is responsible for sending messages to almost every organ in your body. As a result, it helps regulate everything from digestion to heart rate and even mental health. In this article, we will explore how you can stimulate the vagus nerve with exercises and lifestyle changes, understand the symptoms of a vagus nerve that lacks stimulation, and learn about the powerful connection between the vagus nerve and many medical conditions. So let's get started!
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The first step in stimulating your vagus nerve is understanding how it works. This nerve begins at the base of your brain and travels down through your body to some of its most important organs, like your stomach, gallbladder, heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It controls many of your body's automatic functions like digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, and more.
The vagus nerve also plays an essential role in mental health, regulating your mood and emotional responses. In fact, research suggests that stimulating the nerve can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, autism, OCD, and other mental health conditions.
Basic Anatomy of the Vagus Nerve
Now let's dive into the anatomy of the vagus nerve. This nerve is made up of a series of smaller nerves that travel from your brainstem to your abdomen, passing through many of your body's major organs. It has both sensory and motor functions, meaning it can send signals to and receive signals from your organs and other parts of your body, as discussed.
Your vagus nerve has four main branches: pharyngeal branches, superior laryngeal nerve, recurrent laryngeal nerve, and superior cardiac nerve.
As this paper from 2021 explains:
"The pharyngeal nerve branches arise from the inferior ganglion of CN X containing both sensory and motor fibers. These fibers form the pharyngeal plexus–branches of this plexus innervate the pharyngeal and palate muscles (except the tensor palatine muscle); the pharyngeal plexus also supplies the innervation to the intercarotid plexus which mediates information from the carotid body."
Superior laryngeal nerve
The superior laryngeal nerve, sometimes referred to as the internal branch of the vagus, is responsible for controlling the muscles surrounding your voice box. In addition, it provides sensation to the epiglottis and larynx.
The same 2021 paper elaborates:
"The superior laryngeal nerve travels between the external and internal carotid arteries; the nerve divides into internal and external branches near the level of the hyoid. The internal laryngeal nerve goes through the thyrohyoid membrane entering the larynx. The external portion travels distally with the superior thyroid vessels. The external portion supplies the cricothyroid muscle, whereas the internal branch supplies the mucosa superior to the glottis."
Recurrent laryngeal nerve
The recurrent laryngeal nerve is the vagus's third branch, and it controls several muscles within your throat. It is responsible for helping you speak, swallow, and breathe. The right recurrent laryngeal nerve follows the right subclavian artery, and the left recurrent laryngeal nerve follows the aorta.
Superior cardiac nerve
The fourth branch of the vagus nerve, the superior cardiac nerve, is responsible for controlling your heart rate by sending signals to and from your heart muscle. It can also help regulate your blood pressure and other cardiovascular functions.
Muscles and more: other parts of the vagus nerve
Along with the four branches discussed above, the vagus nerve has many other parts which help control different muscles and organs throughout your body. For example, it provides stimulation to the diaphragm, tongue, jaw, and face muscles; helps control digestive functions like saliva production; stimulates the release of hormones from glands, including those that regulate blood sugar levels; and more.
Functions of the Vagus Nerve
Let's talk more about these functions next! Specifically, we'll cover:
- Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration (breathing)
- Immune system responses
- Mucus and saliva production
- Skin and muscle sensations
- Urine output
As we mentioned, the vagus nerve helps with digestion by stimulating the release of saliva and mucus. This saliva and mucus help break down food in your stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Additionally, the vagus nerve can help regulate gastric acid production and stimulate intestinal contractions that help move food through your digestive system.
Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration (breathing)
The vagus nerve plays a leading role in controlling heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. It sends signals to the heart to tell it when to speed up or slow down its beats per minute. It also signals your lungs to increase or decrease their oxygen intake depending on what you're doing—like running or sleeping. Lastly, it can help regulate your blood pressure by stimulating the release of hormones constricting or dilating your blood vessels.
Immune system responses
The vagus nerve is also responsible for controlling your immune system responses. It helps regulate inflammation and can even have an impact on allergies, autoimmune diseases, and infections. Additionally, research has found that stimulating the vagus nerve can reduce cytokines in the body (cytokines are molecules that promote inflammation).
The vagus nerve is connected to areas of the brain responsible for regulating mood. Stimulating it has been shown to help with symptoms of depression and anxiety, making it a potential target for therapies aimed at treating these conditions.
Mucus and saliva production
We already discussed how the vagus nerve helps regulate saliva and mucus production, but it's worth mentioning again. This is important for helping break down food in the stomach and lubricating tissues in your digestive system to aid digestion.
Skin and muscle sensations
The vagus nerve also helps with skin and muscle sensation. It sends signals from the skin to your brain, allowing you to sense things like pressure or heat. Additionally, it can help regulate muscle contractions throughout your body.
This incredible nerve plays a role in speech by controlling muscles associated with speaking, such as those responsible for forming the sounds we make when we talk. It does this by sending signals from our vocal cords to the brain.
The vagus nerve is connected to areas of the brain responsible for taste and smell, so stimulating it can help improve your sense of taste. This is especially useful for those who have lost their sense of taste due to illness or injury.
Finally, the vagus nerve helps regulate urine output by sending signals from your kidneys to the brain. This helps control how much you pee and when you need to go.
Vagus Nerve Testing
Considering the vital role the vagus nerve plays in our body, it's important to be aware of any symptoms which could indicate a problem with your nerve. For example, if you experience any unusual sensations or difficulty speaking, swallowing, or breathing, you should consult your doctor for further evaluation and possible vagus nerve testing.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
If your vagus nerve lacks proper functioning, there are a few ways you can stimulate it.
One way is to practice certain breathing techniques and exercises which help activate the nerve. Additionally, massage and acupuncture have been found to be effective in stimulating the vagus nerve as well. Lastly, some devices like transcutaneous vagal nerve stimulation (tVNS) can be used to stimulate the nerve directly. This includes the Xen by Neuvana vagus nerve stimulation device.
To help stimulate the vagus nerve and improve overall health, it's crucial to practice conscious deep breathing. This helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down after a stressful event.
Many exercises have been found to be effective at stimulating the vagus nerve. These include yoga poses such as cat-cow and downward facing dog and activities like singing or playing musical instruments. Additionally, humming or gargling can also help stimulate the vagus nerve.
Massage can be used to relax tense muscles in your body and stimulate blood flow through certain areas. It can also help reduce stress levels by stimulating the release of endorphins (the body's natural painkillers). Additionally, massage can help boost the vagus nerve and improve its functionality.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. This helps balance energies in the body and can be used to treat a variety of conditions. It has been shown to be effective at stimulating the vagus nerve as well, which can help with depression and other mental health issues.
Vagus nerve stimulation device
The Xen by Neuvana device is designed to stimulate your vagus nerve for improved wellness directly. It works by sending mild electrical pulses through your ear using special vagus nerve-stimulating headphones. It offers users an effective way to reap the rewards of VNS on-demand and from the comfort of their own home.
By taking care of your vagus nerve through proper exercise, diet, and other lifestyle factors, you can ensure that it remains healthy and functioning correctly. This will help keep your body in peak condition and allow you to enjoy optimal health.
The benefits of a healthy and properly functioning vagus nerve cannot be overstated—it's responsible for so many vital functions in the body and can have a major impact on your overall well-being.
One of the benefits many people experience from stimulating the vagus nerve is improved mood. Remember, studies have found that stimulating the vagus nerve can reduce cytokines in the body, which are molecules associated with inflammation and anxiety. Additionally, research has shown that it can help improve symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses.
The vagus nerve also plays a role in regulating our immune system responses. This includes playing a part in reducing inflammation, allergies, autoimmune diseases, and infections. Stimulating the vagus nerve can help ensure our body's defenses stay strong and healthy.
Consider the findings from this 2022 study:
"Resolution of inflammation is an active process that restores tissue homeostasis and prevents the development of chronic inflammatory diseases. The mechanisms that regulate resolution of inflammation are only partially understood. Here, we showed that activation of the vagus nerve accelerated resolution of inflammation. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve in vivo increased levels of select specialized proresolving mediators in inflammation."
Some people also report improved digestion from VNS. In addition, chronic issues like IBS, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's disease each have reduced symptoms when the vagus nerve is stimulated, according to extensive research.
Finally, stimulating your vagus nerve can also help improve heart health. This includes reducing resting heart rate, improving blood pressure, and decreasing inflammation of the cardiovascular system.
In 2010, this study described VNS as a "new approach to reduce heart failure," explaining:
"Autonomic imbalance with increased adrenergic and reduced parasympathetic activity is involved in the development and progress of heart failure (HF). Experimental data have demonstrated that stimulation of the vagus nerve is able to reverse ventricular remodeling of the failing heart. There is also evidence that increasing parasympathetic activity may stimulate the production of nitric oxide, and reduce the devastating inflammatory process involved in HF."
Vagus Nerve Problems
Working backward from the benefits vagus nerve stimulation provides, you can also imagine the number of problems and illnesses that can arise from an impaired vagus nerve. Issues related to the vagus nerve can include things like digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, depression, insomnia, inflammation, and heart disease.
If you suspect you're experiencing vagus nerve symptoms or have been diagnosed with a disorder related to the vagus nerve, it is important to speak with your doctor about treatment options. Stimulating the vagus nerve through lifestyle modifications such as exercise, acupuncture, or massage may provide much-needed relief! Additionally, if your doctor has recommended other treatments, such as tVNS, instructions should be followed closely for safety and efficacy reasons.
The vagus nerve plays a critical role in our body's overall well-being, and any dysfunction or impairment of the vagus nerve can seriously impact our physical and mental health. Thankfully, stimulating the vagus nerve can be done through lifestyle modifications or treatments such as tVNS to improve symptoms associated with various illnesses and disorders.
Recognizing the importance of maintaining a healthy vagus nerve is key to achieving optimal wellness—start today.