By Thomas Ropp
Image: Nicole Rager Fuller
How to Hack Your Nervous System
The vagus nerve is the most important nerve you probably didn’t know you had.
Unlike the other Vegas, what happens in this vagus doesn’t stay there. The vagus nerve is a long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibers that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut. It also branches out to touch and interact with the liver, spleen, gallbladder, ureter, female fertility organs, neck, ears, tongue, and kidneys. It powers up our involuntary nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system—and controls unconscious body functions, as well as everything from keeping our heart rate constant and food digestion to breathing and sweating. It also helps regulate blood pressure and blood glucose balance, promotes general kidney function, helps release bile and testosterone, stimulates the secretion of saliva, assists in controlling taste and releasing tears, and plays a major role in fertility issues and orgasms in women.
Dr Justin Hoffman, a Santa Rosa, California, licensed naturopathic medical physician, says:
Without the vagus nerve, key functions that keep us alive would not be maintained.
Nationally recognized sports nutritionist, strength, and conditioning coach Brandon Mentore elaborates:
The vagus nerve is extremely critical to your overall health and is intimately tied in with multiple organs and systems of the body.
The vagus nerve has fibers that innervate virtually all of our internal organs. The management and processing of emotions happens via the vagal nerve between the heart, brain and gut, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states.
Emotional processing happens via the vagal nerve between the heart, brain and gut.
Vagus nerve dysfunction can result in a whole host of problems including obesity, bradycardia (abnormally slow heartbeat), difficulty swallowing, gastrointestinal diseases, fainting, mood disorders, B12 deficiency, chronic inflammation, impaired cough, and seizures.
Meanwhile, the vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to improve conditions such as:
- Anxiety disorder
- Heart disease
- Alcohol addiction
- Leaky gut
- Bad blood circulation
- Mood disorder
A Closer Look At This Super Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves. Only the spinal column is a larger nerve system. About 80 percent of its nerve fibers—or four of its five ‘lanes’—drive information from the body to the brain. Its fifth lane runs in the opposite direction, shuttling signals from the brain throughout the body. Anchored in the brain stem, the vagus travels through the neck and into the chest, splitting into the left vagus and the right vagus. Each of these roads is composed of tens of thousands of nerve fibers that branch into the heart, lungs, stomach, pancreas and nearly every other organ in the abdomen.
The vagus nerve uses the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which stimulates muscle contractions in the parasympathetic nervous system. A neurotransmitter is a kind of chemical messenger released at the end of a nerve fiber, that allows for signals to be moved along from point to point, which stimulate various organs. For example, if our brain could not communicate with our diaphragm via the release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve, then we would stop breathing.
The vagus nerve is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves.
Some substances such as botox and the heavy metal mercury can interfere with acetylcholine production. Botox has been known to shut down the vagus nerve, which causes death. Mercury blocks the action of acetylcholine. When mercury attaches to the thiol protein in the heart muscle receptors, the heart muscle cannot receive the vagus nerve electrical impulse for contraction. Cardiovascular problems normally follow. Mercury used in fillings only inches from the brain as well as the 3,000 tons of mercury put into the atmosphere can interfere with acetylcholine production. Mercury-laden vaccines may also play a role in vagus nerve-related autism in children.
Theoretically, anything that helps to improve the presence and function of acetylcholine, will also help to regulate the health of our vagus nerve.
He recommends natural nootropics huperzine and galantamine for improving the sensitivity of acetylcholine receptors.
Vagus nerve damage can also be caused by diabetes, alcoholism, upper respiratory viral infections, or having part of the nerve severed accidentally during an operation. Stress can inflame the nerve, along with fatigue and anxiety. Even something as simple as bad posture can negatively impact the vagus nerve.
Stress can inflame the vagus nerve, along with fatigue and anxiety.
It’s also believed that diet plays a role in vagus nerve health. An obesogenic ‘cafeteria diet’ (high-fat, high-carb junk food) reduces the sensitivity of the vagus nerve. Spicy foods can also cause it to misfire.
A Feeling In Your Gut
When people say they feel it in their gut, that’s not just imagination, according to Dr. Mark Sircus, acupuncturist, and doctor of Oriental and pastoral medicine.
Our gut instincts are not fantasies but real nervous signals that guide much of our lives.
This is because the enteric nervous system (ENS), which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, communicates with the central nervous system (the brain) via the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain axis. The ENS is sometimes referred to as the second brain or backup brain centered in our solar plexus. Sircus continues:
We now know that the ENS is not just capable of autonomy but also influences the brain. In fact, about 90 percent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from above, but from the ENS.
Keeping the gut and vagus nerve gateway healthy impacts our mental health. A recent study shows how antibiotics can make us aggressive when they upset the microbiome balance in our gut. An important study last year by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, found that certain beneficial gut microbes can actually prevent PTSD. Probiotics can help keep the gut and vagus nerve signals in a healthier state, according to a report in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
Keeping the gut and vagus nerve gateway healthy, impacts our mental health.
Dr Abby Kramer, a holistic practitioner and chiropractor in Glenview, Illinois, explains:
Probiotics help promote vagal activity, due to its connection to the gut and digestive functions. Zinc is also a great supplement for anyone with stress or mental health issues, which also links back to the vagus nerve.
Boosting With Electricity
Doctors have long exploited the nerve’s influence on the brain. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), is sometimes used to treat people with epilepsy or depression. VNS is designed to prevent seizures by sending regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve. These pulses are supplied by a device something like a pacemaker. It is placed under the skin on the chest wall and a wire runs from it to the vagus nerve in the neck. Researchers studying the effects of vagus stimulation on epilepsy noticed that patients experienced a second benefit unrelated to seizure reduction: their moods also improved.
A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed how stimulating the vagus nerve with a bioelectronic device “significantly improved measures of disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis,” a chronic inflammatory disease that affects 1.3 million people in the United States and costs tens of billions of dollars annually to treat.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), is used to treat epilepsy, depression and arthritis.
12 Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques
The vagus nerve doesn’t need to be shocked into shape. It can also be toned and strengthened similar to a muscle. Here are some simple things you can do that might improve your health markedly:
1. Positive Social Relationships – A study had participants think compassionately about others while silently repeating positive phrases about friends and family. Compared to the controls, the meditators showed an overall increase in positive emotions like serenity, joy, and hope after completing the class. These positive thoughts of others led to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart-rate variability. The results also showed a more toned vagus nerve than when simply meditating.
2. Cold – “Cold exposure such as cold showers or face dunking stimulates the nerve as well,” says Mentore.
Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases–and this is mediated by the vagus nerve. Any kind of acute cold exposure including drinking ice cold water will increase vagus nerve activation.
3. Gargling – Another home remedy for an under-stimulated vagus nerve is to gargle with water. Gargling actually stimulates the muscles of the pallet which are fired by the vagus nerve.
“Typically patients will tear up a bit which is a good sign and if they don’t, we recommend that they do it regularly every day until they notice that they do start tearing up a bit,” says Hoffman. “This has been shown to immediately improve working memory performance.”
4. Singing And Chanting – Humming, mantra chanting, hymn singing, and upbeat energetic singing all increase heart rate variability (HRV) in slightly different ways. Essentially, singing is like initiating a vagal pump sending out relaxing waves. Singing at the top of your lungs works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus. Singing in unison, which is often done in churches and synagogues, also increases HRV and vagus function. Singing has been found to increase oxytocin, also known as the love hormone because it makes people feel closer to one another.
Compassion meditation has been shown to result in a more toned vagus nerve.
5. Massage – You can stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging your feet and your neck along the carotid sinus, located along the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. A neck massage can help reduce seizures. A foot massage help can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. A pressure massage can also activate the vagus nerve. These massages are used to help infants gain weight by stimulating gut function, largely mediated by activating the vagus nerve.
6. Laughter – Happiness and laughter are natural immune boosters. Laughter also stimulates the vagus nerve. Research shows how laughter increases HRV in a group environment.
There are various case reports of people fainting from laughter and this may be from the vagus nerve/parasympathetic system being stimulated too much. Fainting can come after laughter as well as urination, coughing, swallowing or bowel movement—all of which are helped along by vagus activation.
7. Yoga And Tai Chi — Both increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic system in general. Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents (fibers),” which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression.
Studies show that tai chi also can ‘enhance vagal modulation.’
8. Breathing Deeply And Slowly — Your heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called baroreceptors, which detect blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain. This activates your vagus nerve that connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out, increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation. Breathing around 5-6 breaths per minute in the average adult can be very helpful.
9. Exercise – Exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline. But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which leads to beneficial brain and mental health effects. Mild exercise also stimulates gut flow, which is mediated by the vagus nerve.
Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve and increases HRV in a group environment.
10. Coffee Enemas — Enemas are like sprints for your vagus nerve. Expanding the bowel increases vagus nerve activation, as is done with enemas. This cleansing is accomplished by increasing the liver’s capacity to detoxify toxins in the blood and binding them to the bile. In the process, the liver cleanses itself as it releases the toxic bile into the small, then large, intestine for evacuation. The entire blood supply circulates through the liver every three minutes. By retaining the coffee 12 to 15 minutes, the blood will circulate four to five times for cleansing, much like a dialysis treatment. The water content of the coffee stimulates intestinal peristalsis and helps to empty the large intestine with the accumulated toxic bile.
11. Nervana — This wearable product sends a gentle electrical wave through the left ear canal to stimulate the body’s vagus nerve, while syncing with music, which in turn stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that generate a calming sensation throughout the body.
12. Relax – Learning how to chill may be the No. 1 thing to help keep your vagus nerve toned. According to Hoffman, most relaxing activities will stimulate the vagus nerve.
Ultimately, this is where the most profoundly felt impacts can be found. Reading a book, listening to music, watching children play–whatever it is, my advice is to seek relaxation and make time in your life for it. ~ Dr Justin Hoffman