The Vagus Nerve.
Sounds kind of fun, doesn’t it? But unlike the other Vegas, what happens in the vagus doesn’t stay there, in fact, it can have a profound impact on your overall health and well being.
It may interest you to know that the vagus nerve plays a big role in your overall performance, including things like your “gut feeling” which leads you into some of your decisions.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve plays a very important role in the body, yet most people have barely heard of it. It is a long bundle of motor and sensory fibers, running from the brain stem, and extending down the neck, chest and abdomen. This nerve interacts with a number of vital organs or systems, including the heart, lungs, gut, liver, spleen and kidneys.
Vagus means “wandering” in Latin, which is fitting for a nerve which meanders down the body. It is the most complex of 12 pairs of cranial nerves emanating from the brain, and transmits information from the brain to the tissues and organs it reaches.
The vagus nerve is busy. There are multiple nervous system functions which it or its related parts are responsible for. A huge role is its contribution to the parasympathetic nervous system.
We can break down the functions of the vagus nerve into four key areas:
Basically, it is helping with major functions that keep us alive.
What happens when the vagus nerve isn’t operating well?
A little research into the vagus nerve finds a whole host of conditions that have either been positively linked, or are currently being investigated for a link to the nerve. These range from minor annoyances to major issues. Of course, if you are impacted anywhere on a spectrum, it can affect your overall feeling of well being and general performance.
Most people will experience a vasovagal response due to a stressor or overstimulation of the vagus nerve at some point. Blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows, and the blood vessels in your legs widen, which can cause nausea or fainting. This is a generally harmless response which goes away on its own, however, some people who experience it more chronically may need to seek medical help.
Some other problems linked with vagus nerve dysfunction include: obesity, anxiety, mood disorders, bradycardia, gastrointestinal diseases, chronic inflammation, fainting and seizures.
Of course, most of these conditions outlined can lead to further illness, for example, obesity and inflammation are both linked with cancersand diabetes. Anxiety or mood disorders might also lead to depression.
How does “hacking” the vagus work?
There is a growing body of research to suggest that we can manipulate or “hack” the vagus nerve. Vagus hacks date back to some research conducted in 1998 by Kevin Tracey. Through his work, he discovered that by stimulating the vagus nerve with an electrical impulse, he could reduce the body’s inflammatory response.
This has positive implications for the treatment of conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Tracey’s research forms the basis of the idea for bioelectronics, which we now see treating conditions such as depression and epilepsy.
Outside of those conditions, inflammation is a response that we all have in our bodies, often as a result of stress. For some people (hey there, entrepreneurs!), that stress and inflammatory response can become chronic, leading to other health issues.
The vagus nerve is linked to so many different functions, that there are more “hacks” than having a bioelectric device implanted to stimulate it (this is usually only for extreme cases). In fact, researchers have found that we can combat inflammation by engaging the vagus nerve and improving “vagal tone” – kind of like a workout! Let’s look at what you can be doing:
Vagus Nerve Tone
The vagus nerve offers a simple explanation why our stomachs and intestines react to stress and heightened emotions as they often do. It is the sensitivity of the vagus nerve and the signals it sends. But there is much more.
The health of the vagus nerve is not only critical to our mental health and emotional health, but to a host of other health issues as well. In many cases, for instance, inflammation is our body's response to stress. According to a blog post on Psychology Today (Christopher Bergland, The Athlete's Way, July 6, 2016), the healthy "tone" of the vagus nerve plays an important role in reducing or eliminating inflammation. This has considerable implications for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, including Parkinson's, Crohns, and Alzheimer's. Additionally, it has been asserted that stimulating the vagus nerve can lead to the inhibition of cytokine production. An excess of cytokines can lead to the growth of tumors, both benign and malignant. The vagus nerve can help regulate heart rate and blood pressure and it may have an impact on a range of conditions, including: heart disease, diabetic neuropathy, cysts, autoimmune disorders, MS, and cluster headaches.
Stress and Good BacteriaThere is a bi-directional relationship with stress and bacteria. When you’re stressed or anxious, the amount of good bacteria goes down. But when you work on gut health and get your good bacteria numbers up, it actually lowers the stress response in the body. How? Well, good bacteria in your gut can lower cortisol levels—your main stress hormone and also alter expression of GABA receptors—which helps you feel calm.
How to improve Vagus nerve function
1. GABA GABA ia a major inhibitory neurotransmitter. A GABA deficiency can be a big factor contributing to stress and anxiety. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of the major neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other. It is the primary inhibitory brain chemical that calms the mind and slows brain activity. If you are easily overstimulated and often overwhelmed and stressed out, you might be deficient in this important neurotransmitter.
L-Tryptophan Eat foods rich in tryptophan. Dietary tryptophan is metabolized in the gut and may help the astrocytes control inflammation. These foods include spinach, seeds, nuts, and bananas.
3. Intermittent Fasting. Some studies suggest that fasting and dietary restriction can activate the vagus nerve, and considering all the other health benefits of fasting, it's definitely something to think about.
4. Biofeedback. Biofeedback, especially heart rate variability biofeedback, is an amazing type of technology that works by displaying a visual representation of what's happening inside the body. This way, a person can better understand the physiological effects of deep breathing or relaxation techniques; the vagus nerve plays a major role in breathing regulation and heart rate variability, so this can be a fun way to exercise it.
5. Cold Exposure.Studies show that cold exposure causes a shift toward parasympathetic nervous system activity, which as we know is modulated by the vagus nerve. So if you've never explored the benefits of hot to cold showering, your vagus nerve could be a good reason to start.
6. Probiotics. We already know that the vagus nerve plays a major role in the gut-brain axis, but thanks to science, we now know that gut microorganisms can actually activate the vagus nerve. As you can imagine, this plays a major role in our brain and behavior—in case you needed another reason to invest in an effective probiotic.