Which weapons are in your stress-fighting arsenal? If vagus nerve stimulation isn't one of them, it's time to think about adding it! There are many benefits of vagus nerve stimulation, and they don't only apply to stress management. Today, we'll explain everything you need to know about vagus nerve stimulation, including how it can help you live a happier life with less stress.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in the human body. It extends from the brainstem, through the abdomen, and to the pelvis. It plays a vital role in many of the body's functions, including heart rate, digestion, immunity, and resilience and stress response.
The vagus nerve and stress
Regarding stress, the vagus nerve is your body's built-in stress management system. It's responsible for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the "rest and digest" response that helps your body recover from stress.
In other words, when the vagus nerve is toned, it helps your body stay calm and relaxed in the face of stress. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced, modern world, the vagus nerve is often overstimulated and unable to do its job correctly. This can lead to several problems, including anxiety, depression, chronic inflammation, and even heart disease.
The vagus nerve and immunity
One of the other most essential functions of the vagus nerve is its role in immunity.
As this source explains:
"The vagus nerve has an important role in the regulation of metabolic homeostasis, and efferent vagus nerve-mediated cholinergic signalling controls immune function and proinflammatory responses via the inflammatory reflex."
The vagus nerve and digestion
Another essential function of the vagus nerve is its role in digestion. The vagus nerve helps to control the movement of food through the digestive system and also plays a role in the production of stomach acid. In addition, it works by sending signals to the muscles of the digestive system, telling them when to contract and when to relax.
The vagus nerve and heart rate
The vagus nerve also plays a profound role in regulating heart rate. It does this by sending signals to the heart that slow down the heart rate. This is why vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to be effective in treating conditions like arrhythmia and tachycardia in some people.
The vagus nerve and sleep
Did you know the vagus nerve also affects your sleep patterns and quality?
We have a whole post on the vagus nerve and sleep here. It includes this explanation of their relationship:
"It balances the nervous system by promoting a relaxation response, a critical component of good sleep.
Under ideal conditions, your body sends autonomic signals, including notably increased parasympathetic (vagal) activity and sympathetic drive reduction before falling asleep. This contributes to your heart rate slowing down. As you can imagine, a slower heart rate induces a state of relaxation, and ultimately sleep."
What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a therapy that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. This therapy has been used to treat or improve various conditions, including epilepsy, depression, and migraines. However, it can also benefit many people who don't have any of these conditions, but are simply looking for better sleep, a brighter mood,
How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?
Vagus nerve stimulation works by sending electrical signals to the vagus nerve. These signals then travel to the brain, which can help regulate mood and relieve stress, among other benefits.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
The way you achieve vagus nerve stimulation can vary, however. So next, we'll discuss several methods for stimulating the vagus nerve.
One of the most accessible methods of vagus nerve stimulation is transcutaneously. It involves stimulating the vagus nerve through the ear, rather than needing to go into or under the skin to reach the vagus nerve.
For example, Xen by Neuvana is a handheld device that connects to your smartphone. You wear headphones that relate to the device, sending electrical signals to the vagus nerve through your ear while you listen to music or sounds.
As for the more invasive methods, one option is to have a surgical device implanted to deliver electrical signals to the vagus nerve. This is known as transvagal vagus nerve stimulation (TVNS).
It is often used to treat medical conditions like epilepsy.
Along with tVNS and TVN, many other non-invasive ways to stimulate the vagus nerve have been used for thousands of years in various cultures.
These other methods include:
- Singing or humming
- Breathwork like pranayama and kundalini yoga
Each of these activities sends vibrations through your neck to the vagus nerve, which can help to stimulate it. You may have already been doing some of these things without even realizing it!
Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
The benefits of vagus nerve stimulation are vast and far-reaching. This therapy can help with everything from depression and anxiety to migraines and chronic pain. So if you're looking for a natural way to improve your overall health and well-being, vagus nerve stimulation is worth considering.
Next, let's take a closer look at some of these far-reaching benefits of vagus nerve stimulation.
A significant component of many chronic diseases is inflammation. The body's inflammatory response is a natural, protective mechanism to heal tissue damage and fight infection. However, this response can contribute to various health problems when it goes into overdrive.
There is growing evidence to show that vagus nerve stimulation can help modulate the body's inflammatory response. For example, in one study, rats with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who received vagus nerve stimulation showed reduced inflammation and decreased symptoms.
In another study, people with rheumatoid arthritis who received vagus nerve stimulation had reduced levels of inflammatory markers and reported improvements in pain and quality of life.
Further, a review of studies looked at the use of vagus nerve stimulation in various inflammatory conditions, including Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The authors concluded that vagus nerve stimulation might be a promising treatment for chronic inflammation.
Many people report significant pain relief from transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation.
This is likely because the vagus nerve plays a role in pain perception. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it can send signals to the brain that help to modulate pain.
In one study, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation was found to be particularly effective in relieving tension headaches and migraines.
In another study, people with fibromyalgia who underwent transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation treatment reported significant improvements in pain, fatigue, morning stiffness, and quality of life.
Depression and anxiety relief
Transcutaneous nerve stimulation has also been shown to help treat depression and anxiety in some people. That's because it can help regulate the HPA axis, which is responsible for the body's stress response.
Interestingly, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has also increased heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. Generally, low HRV is a marker of poor health, while high HRV indicates good health.
Research shows that transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation can help to increase HRV, which may benefit cardiovascular health.
As this study finds:
"Progressive loss of heart rate variability (HRV) and complexity are associated with increased risk of mortality in patients with cardiovascular disease and are a candidate marker for patients at risk of sudden cardiac death. HRV is influenced by the cardiac autonomic nervous system (ANS), although it is unclear which arm of the ANS (sympathetic or parasympathetic) needs to be perturbed to increase the complexity of HRV. In this case–control study, we have analyzed the relation between modulation of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and changes in complexity of HRV as a function of states of vigilance. We hypothesize that VNS – being a preferential activator of the parasympathetic system – will decrease the heart rate (HR) and increase the complexity of HRV maximum during sleep."
Vagus Nerve Stimulation FAQs
Can I do vagus nerve stimulation at home?
Yes! There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve at home, including through yoga and meditation. However, for those looking for a more direct approach, consider using a device for transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, including Xen by Neuvana.
Does vagus nerve stimulation hurt?
No, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is not painful. Many people report a feeling of relaxation during and after treatment.
Are there any side effects of vagus nerve stimulation?
Side effects from transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation are rare but can include skin irritation, headaches, and dizziness. You're more likely to have side effects with more invasive methods, including surgical implantation of VNS devices.
Does VNS have any benefits for healthy people?
Yes! In addition to the benefits mentioned above, VNS has also been shown to improve cognitive function and increase grey matter in the brain. These benefits have been seen in healthy adults and those with Alzheimer's.
Summary: The Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
These benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. Vagus nerve stimulation is a powerful, all-natural way to improve your overall health and well-being.
When used as directed, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is considered a safe and effective way to promote relaxation and stress relief for most people. So if you're looking for a natural way to reduce stress and improve your overall health, consider giving it a try!