You may already be familiar with the term 'vagus nerve’ but what is it exactly? And why is it getting so much coverage at the moment?
The vagus nerve travels throughout the whole body.
It acts as a communication highway between your brain, internal organs, and gut.
Vagus nerve stimulation can have a positive effect on mental health issues.
Vagus in Greek means "wanderer" or "traveler". And it's the perfect name for this unique nerve, which "travels" throughout the body, taking in a great deal of information as it goes.
Sound complex? Let's simplify it.
Imagine your body, which, as we all know, is a highly complex network of trillions of cells and neurons. The vagus nerve is like a communication highway that checks your health status through different signals. Information is sent to the brain and vice versa - relaying information from the brain to relax or lower the heart rate, for example.
What are the main functions of the vagus nerve?
We can liken the vagus nerve to a personal assistant to our body, but what kind of information is it in charge of?
The vagus nerve has several different functions. The key ones are:
Internal organ monitoring. Sending information to the brain about the state of the internal organs. For example, your liver is in charge of over five hundred functions, and the vagus nerve relays information directly to the brain about the functions.
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The vagus nerve sends information from the brain to the internal organs responsible for the digestive tract, respiration, and heart rate regulation. This function lets your body know when to relax, slow breathing, and digest food.
Motor movement. The vagus nerve helps with the movement of the neck muscles responsible for speech, swallowing, and breathing.
Special sensory function. Providing a taste sensation behind the tongue.
Who can and can't stimulate their vagus nerve?
Let's begin with who could benefit from vagus nerve stimulation:
Those with neurological conditions such as epilepsy.
People who are suffering from mental health issues. Vagus nerve stimulation has a positive effect on mental health. Patients have seen improvement in chronic treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as stress and anxiety management.
Anyone who is looking to boost their immunity. The vagus nerve stimulation also lowers heart rate and blood pressure.
Are there any potential side effects of vagus nerve stimulation?
Overstimulation of the vagus nerve can lead to vasovagal syncope. Because the vagus nerve stimulates muscles in the heart to help slow the heart rate, overstimulation may cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, resulting in fainting.
How to check the strength of your vagus nerve?
Heart rate variability (HRV) can measure whether your vagus nerve is active enough. HRV measures your autonomic nervous system, which is considered one of the best objective metrics for physical fitness. Measuring HRV indicates your body's readiness to perform, stress levels, and overall health and well-being.
HRV is the variance in time between the beats of your heart. I recommend visiting your primary care physician or using a good-quality heart rate monitor to determine your measurement.
What are the signs of damage to the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve can get damaged from diabetes, viral infections, abdominal surgery, and scleroderma. There are some key signs to look out for if you've experienced any of these health conditions:
- Issues with voice and throat. Vocal cord damage resulting in hoarseness, wheezing, or loss of voice completely.
- Brain fog. Difficulty concentrating on tasks and feeling a clouded sensation in your head.
- Blood pressure. Excessively high or low and increased heart rate.
Sadly, the vagus nerve regenerates poorly after injury, resulting in loss of speech, difficulty swallowing, abnormal heart rate, and gastroparesis.
Ways to check your HRV and the health of your vagus nerve
Get an electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG test is a procedure a cardiologist performs. It studies the electrical properties of your biological cells and tissues to indicate your heart rate variability.
Get a chest strap monitor. Purchasing your own wearable heart rate monitor can spare you a trip to the doctor. Still, you should consult specialists, particularly if you see something concerning.
Use an app. In today's technologically savvy culture, you can sync a personal heart rate monitor with various apps that will help you analyze HRV data. Choose the software that is right for you, and you'll be able to monitor your heart's health anytime and anywhere.
Check your result, and if you find that your HRV is sub-optimal, don't worry too much. You can even stimulate your vagus nerve at home and increase your HRV. Let's take a look at how.
How to stimulate your vagus nerve at home
You don't need fancy devices to stimulate your vagus nerve at home. All you need is some time and patience. You can easily stimulate your vagus nerve by:
Breathing exercises. pranayama, Buteyko, Wim Hof, and box breathing.
Cold showers. Introducing cold showers into your daily routine promotes what is known as the 'diving reflex’. The vagus nerve orders your heart rate to slow down, therefore conserving oxygen.
Self-massage. Neck massage can stimulate your vagus nerve, especially around the ears.
Suppose you don't find any of the listed options suitable. In that case, there are many other ways to activate your vagus nerve - by singing and humming, going to a sauna, or booking an acupuncture appointment.
Can I read more about vagus nerve stimulation?
There are more than twenty thousand scientific studies related to vagus nerve stimulation. Various benefits are documented, including stress and anxiety reduction techniques and using vagus nerve stimulation to regulate blood pressure and improve communication between the gut-brain axis.
- Psychological Medicine. Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation boosts mood recovery after effort exertion.
- Autonomic Neuroscience. Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation and heart rate variability: Analysis of parameters and targets.
- NIH. Application of Noninvasive Vagal Nerve Stimulation to Stress-Related Psychiatric Disorders.