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How To Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is 1 of 12 cranial nerves in the body and is part of the autonomic nervous system. It is responsible for various functions inside the body including breathing, heart rate, digestion, coughing, sneezing and vomiting (Howland, 2014).


The vagus nerve sensory functions are divided into 2 components:

  1. Somatic components- sensations felt in the muscles or skin.

  2. Visceral components- sensations felt in body organs (Soliman, 2023)

When chronically stressed or undergoing a period of emotional stress, your sympathetic nervous system becomes chronically activated and can dominate. The result it excess cortisol and adrenaline release and potential hormonal imbalances (Yaribeygi et al. 2017). The vagus nerve is responsible for telling the body to relax by releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin (Moberg et al. 2014).


The vagus nerve is also responsible for alerting the brain when it notices inflammatory cytokines or TNF. It then releases anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters and regulates a healthy immune response (Thayer & Sternberg, 2010).


Furthermore, the vagus nerve connects the gut and brain, via the gut-brain axis. It sends informations from the gut to the brain using neurotransmitter such as glutamate and serotonin (Han et al. 2022). So yes, your 'gut feelings' are a real thing!


When we are chronically stressed and/or have an infection and/or inflammation, our vagus nerve can become dysfunctional and lead to problems within the body and gastrointestinal system (Pavlov & Tracey, 2012). The signs and symptoms of a damaged vagus nerve and poor gut-brain communication include:

  • Anxious stomach

  • Reflux

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Unexplained digestive issues

  • Dizziness

  • Fainting

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Malabsorption and deficiencies

  • Speech difficulty

  • Loss or change of voice

  • Loss of gag reflex

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fast or slow heart rate

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss (Kenny & Bordoni, 2023).

So how can we stimulate our vagus nerve and restore optimal function?


Treatment focuses on increasing vagal tone and inhibiting inflammatory cytokine release (Bonaz et al. 2021). Mainstream doctor's typically use an electrical device to stimulate the vagus nerve (Morris & Mueller, 1999), however, there are many naturopathic practices we can do that have the same effect. These include:

  • Chiropractic adjustments help by improving communication between the gut and the brain. This leads to better digestion, blood flow, oxygenation and general health (Kiani et al. 2020).

  • Meditation, breath work and/or yoga: just 15 minutes per day has been shown to activate the vagus nerve (Gerritsen & Band, 2018).

  • Abdominal massage on an empty stomach starting at the sternum and moving down toward the lower left quadrant. Use your fingertips to make circular motions and progressively get deeper and firmer.

  • Humming, gargling, singing or chanting: recent studies have found that chanting and humming are just as effective as vagal stimulation devices! (Kalyani et al. 2011)

  • Valsalva Maneuver: exhale against a closed airway by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose. This increases vagal tone by increasing pressure inside your chest cavity.

  • Pinching the cymba conchae (in the ear) with your thumb and finger. Rub your thumb gently back and forth over this area to relieve anxiety and stress (Gurtubay et al. 2021).

  • Cold showers, plunges and face splashes increase stimulation of the vagus nerve and parasympathetic activity (Jungmann 2018).

  • Bitter tasting herbs such as gentian and foods such as rocket have been found to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone (McMullen et al. 2015).

  • Being out in nature and connecting with others has been shown to increase parasympathetic activity and improve vagal tone (Jo et al. 2019).

  • PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic field therapy) has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve by increasing heart rate variability (Jeong et al. 2022).

  • Laughing - they did say laughter was medicine! (Fujiwara & Okamura, 2018).

  • Posture: poor posture can lead to compression of the vagal nerve and disrupt signals between the brain and body. Thus, having good posture is vital (Wang et al. 2022).


References

  1. Bonaz,B. Sinniger, V. Pellisier, S. (2021). 'Therapeutic Potential of Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases', Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15 (1), pp.6509.

  2. Fujiwara, Y. & Okamura, H. (2018). 'Hearing Laughter Improves the Recovery Process of the Autonomic Nervous System after a Stress-Loading Task: A Randomized Controlled Trial', BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 12 (1), pp.22-25.

  3. Gerritsen, R.J.S. & Band, G.P.H. (2018). 'Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity', Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12 (1), pp.397-400.

  4. Gurtubay, I.G. Bermejo, P. Lopez, M. et al. (2021). 'Evaluation of Different Vagus Nerve Stimulation Anatomical Targets in the Ear by Vagus Evoked Potential Responses', Brain and Behaviour, 11 (11), pp.2343-2346.

  5. Han, Y. Wang, B. Gao, H. et al. (2022). 'Vagus Nerve and Underlying Impact on the Gut Microbiota- Brain Axis in Behaviour and Neurodegenerative Diseases', Journal of Inflammation Research, 15 (1), pp.6213-6230.

  6. Howland, R.H. (2014). 'Vagus Nerve Stimulation', Current Behavioural Neuroscience Reports, 1 (2), pp.64-73.

  7. Jeong, H. Cho, A. Ay, I. et al. (2022). 'Short-Pulsed Micro-Magnetic Stimulation of the Vagus Nerve, Frontiers in Physiology, 13 (1), pp.1-10.

  8. Jo, H. Song, C. Miyazaki, Y. (2019). 'Physiological Benefits of Viewing Nature: A Systematic Review of Indoor Experiments', International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16 (23), pp.4739-4744.

  9. Jungmann, M. Vencatachellum, S. Ryckeghem, D. et al. (2018). 'Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial', JMIR Formative Research, 2 (2), pp.10257-10259.

  10. Kalyani, B.G. Venkatasubramanian, G. Arasappa, R. et al. (2011). 'Neurohemodynamic Correlates of 'OM' Chanting: A Pilot Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study', International Journal of Yoga, 4 (1), pp.3-6.

  11. Kenny, B.J. & Bordoni, B. (2023). 'Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve 10 (Vagus Nerve)', StatPearls, 1 (1), pp.1-10.

  12. Kiani, A.K. Maltese, P.E. Dautaj, A. et al. (2020). 'Neurobiological Basis of Chiropractic Manipulative Treatment of the Spine in the Care of Major Depression', ACTA Biomedica, 91 (13), pp.202-205.

  13. McMullen, M.K. Whitehouse, J.M. Towell, A. (2015). 'Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm', Hindawi, 1 (1), pp.1-10.

  14. Moberg, K.U. Handlin, L. Petersson, M. (2014). 'Self-Soothing Behaviours with Particular Reference to Oxytocin Release Induced by Non-Noxious Sensory Stimulants', Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (1), pp.1529-1533.

  15. Morris, G.L. & Mueller, W.M. (1999). 'Long-Term Treatment with Vagus Nerve Stimulation in Patients with Refractory Epilepsy. The Vagus Nerve Stimulation Study Group E01-E05', Neurology, 53 (8), pp.1731-1735.

  16. Pavlov, V.A. & Tracey, K.J. (2012). 'The Vagus Nerve and the Inflammatory Reflex- Linking Immunity and Metabolism', Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 8 (12), pp.743-754.

  17. Thayer, J.F. & Sternberg, E.M. (2010). 'Neural Aspects of Immunomodulation: Focus on the Vagus Nerve', Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, 24 (8), pp.1223-1228.

  18. Wang, H. Gao, X. Shi, Y. et al. (2022). 'Effects of Trunk Posture on Cardiovascular and Autonomic Nervous Systems: A Pilot Study', Frontiers in Physiology, 13 (1), pp.100.

  19. Yaribeygi, H. Panahi, Y. Sahraei, H. et al. (2017). 'The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review', EXCLI Journal, 16 (1), pp.1057-1072.






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