The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the body, which most people seem to know little to nothing about. This is rather worrying, since the vagus nerves are interconnected with a lot of other nerves, and can negatively impact the overall health if adequate care is not taken.
The term “vagus’ is Latin for “wandering”, and is an apt name for this network of nerves, since they literally wander through the body, connecting different parts and acting as transmitters for information.
The vagus nerve is a complex mass of sensory fibers and motors, which takes root in the brain stem, and stretches down to the neck, chest area, and abdomen. This means that the nerve is connected to major components in the body including the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, and other organs in the abdomen.
This makes the vagus nerve one of the most complex and sensitive nerves in the body. This is because it sends out information from the brain to vital organs and tissues in the body.
If you have ever wondered what controls your mood, immune response, and digestion. This means that if the vagus nerve is functioning properly, you can expect most of your other bodily functions to operate smoothly.
Vagus Nerve Disorder
When the vagus nerve suffers damage, a variety of symptoms and health implications can follow. Most people will suffer from some reaction to a vagus nerve overstimulation at one point or the other.
Sometimes, it can be brought on by stress. When unchecked, the symptoms can escalate into loss of consciousness and lowered blood pressure. Most of these symptoms will correct themselves with time, but more chronic cases will require medical help.
Although symptoms vary in individuals mostly due to the area of the vagus nerve that is damaged, some of the symptoms include:
- Hoarse or wheezy voice
- Unusual or slowed heart rate
- Difficulty speaking
- Loss of gag reflex
- Trouble swallowing and drinking liquids
- Pain in the ear
- Abdominal pain
- Unusual blood pressure
- Nausea or vomiting
- Decreased production of stomach acids
Damage to the Vagus Nerve
Diabetes and heavy alcohol intake have negative impacts on most areas of the body, but scientists have discovered that these two ailments damage the vagal nerves and other nerves.
It is not uncommon to find people suffering from insulin-dependent diabetes to show symptoms of neuropathy in their nerves and this condition cannot be reversed, only managed.
Other conditions that can cause damage to the vagus nerve include the growth of a tumor and physical trauma.
Vagus Nerve and the Gut
The vagus nerve is heavily connected with the stomach, and aids in controlling the digestive system. Damage to the vagus nerve can lead to gastroparesis. When this happens, the digestive system faces unusual contractions, and will not be emptied properly.
Watch out for some of these symptoms to ascertain if you are suffering from gastroparesis:
- Loss of appetite, or feeling of fullness after eating very little
- Vomiting or nausea after a meal
- Acid reflux
- Sudden weight loss
- Bloating or abdominal pain
- Fluctuations in blood sugar
Vagus Nerve and Emotional Health
Since the vagal nerve is connected to the brain stems, it is only expected that this nerve has a lot to do with our mood and how we perceive things.
Studies have shown that when the vagus nerve is in a poor state, there are higher chances of mood swings and heightened anxiety. Work on stimulating the vagus nerve with mindfulness techniques and regulated breathing to help control your emotions.
Vagus Nerve and Appetite
The vagus nerve travels from the brain down through the neck and to the stomach area. This means that any problems with the vagal nerve will negatively impact the gastrointestinal functions including your appetite.
Reports have shown that a symptom of vagus nerve disorder is sudden weight gain or obesity. Some other researchers have stated that a poorly functioning vagus nerve will send signals of satisfaction to the brain and reduce food intake.
Vagus Nerve and Inflammation
Proper vagal tone is very important to maintain overall body health, but it is especially important to regulate inflammation in the body.
Short-term inflammation is necessary for fighting off infections in the body and assisting it in repairing itself, but it can have negative impacts on the body if it sustains for an extended period of time. Diseases like diabetes, cancer, and even heart diseases have been linked to chronic inflammation.
Studies have shown that a well functioning vagal nerve helps in lowering inflammatory responses.
Vagus Nerve and Fainting
Fainting is the body’s response to an overload of information where the body decides to shut down. What you might not know is that your body’s queasiness at the sight of blood or gore is known as “vagal syncope”, which occurs when your vagus nerve gets overstimulated, and lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.
When your vagal syncope reaches extreme levels, reduced blood flow is directed to the brain, and there is a loss of consciousness. Fainting does not often require medical or professional aid, and you will revive after rest and relaxation.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Science and an impressive amount of research have shown how stimulation of the vagus nerve can improve its functionality. There are more than a handful of ways to properly stimulate the vagus nerve to boost your overall health and well being.
By introducing some probiotics into your system, you can greatly boost your vagal nerve functions, and improve your overall health.
Research has shown how probiotics have helped in aiding digestion, and this is because they stimulate the vagus nerve. Since your gut health is connected to your overall mood and emotional state of mind, having a healthy digestive system will also positively impact your anxiety and stress levels, and also improve depression.
You can stimulate the vagus nerve by applying cold water to your face or pressing a cold compress to the back of your neck. Research has shown how cold temperatures can positively stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagus activity.
Positive emotional health is linked to many things, and the vagus nerve is one of them. Research has shown that subjects who were exposed to Loving-Kindness Meditation to introduce positivity to their emotional state of being, were reported as having a better vagal tone.
It is recommended that people engage in activities that will boost their social and emotional health in a positive way. Examples of such activities include mindfulness techniques, yoga, and meditation.
There is enough evidence to show that with breathing techniques, the vagus nerve can be stimulated and boosted. Also, deep and steady breathing comes sin especially handy during stressful situations where a fight or flight response might be triggered.
A study has shown that a daily 15 minutes breathing exercise performed for 2 weeks will positively impact the overall health.
Exercising has always been one of the answers for many physical and even mental ailments. Regular physical activity is necessary to help boost cardiovascular health.
Research has shown us that one of the many benefits of regular physical activity is improved digestive health. Exercising improves the vagus nerves, and in turn, a healthy vagal tone leads to an improved digestive system.
Massages are intended to relax the muscles and ease the stress out of the body. It is only fitting that the vagus nerves benefit from a good massage. Although there are devices whose sole purpose is to stimulate the vagus nerve, a good masseuse can manually target the carotid sinus on the sides of the neck, and produce similar effects.
For people suffering from seizures, massaging the carotid sinus will prove beneficial since it stimulates the vagus nerve. It is necessary that this massage be carried out by a professional who knows what they are doing, and how to locate the necessary nerves.
A good way to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve overall health is through intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is fast gaining popularity, and more and more people understand the benefits of the 5:2 diet.
The lifestyle involves following a regular meal plan for 5 days of the week and engaging in a partial fast for two days out of the week.
Among the many benefits of intermittent fasting includes weight loss and controlled calorie intake for both men and women. Studies have also shown that intermittent fasting has positive effects on the vagus nerve.
Acupuncture has been embraced as a treatment for a wide range of ailments both physical and mental. It should come as little surprise that acupuncture stimulates the vagal nerve. When acupuncture is properly administered, it can aid in regulating the vagus nerve, as well as boosting the respiratory system, heart rate, and gastrointestinal health.
It might seem like an odd method to stimulate the vagus nerve, but laughter does indeed seem to be the best medicine in some cases, and science backs this statement. In the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, a study showed how laughter during a yoga session improved the general mood and also controlled anxiety levels.
Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Lowered and regulated blood pressure
- Reduced anxiety
- Better sleep
- Improved brain health
Treatment for Vagus Nerve Disorders
Consult with a doctor
The first thing you should do as soon as you suspect damage to your vagus nerve is to book a consultation with your doctor. After your doctor performs some necessary examinations, they will determine what the next step will be, and might refer you to a nerve therapist who will be able to pinpoint what your problem is.
Undergo Nerve Therapy
After consulting with a specialist and it has been confirmed that you are suffering from some nerve damage, your doctor will advise you to undergo nerve therapy.
You will typically be subjected to vagus nerve stimulation, which can be performed with an electronic device that pulsates. The function of this electronic device can be compared with how a heart pacemaker works.
Seek Medical Treatment
If you have suffered from some symptoms and side effects that come with a vagus nerve disorder, medical treatment is necessary to help you manage some of these symptoms. In addition to undergoing nerve therapy, your doctor might also place you on medication for some of your symptoms.
The vagus nerve might not be the most popular nerve in the body, but there is no denying its importance in overall health and wellness. In addition to being connected to the metabolic and digestive parts of the body, the vagus nerve also plays an important part in processing sensory information, as well as regulating the heart rate, among other things.
With its many benefits, it is clear to see why it is important to keep the vagus nerve properly stimulated and in peak condition. This can be done quite easily and from the comfort of anywhere. For example, some of the techniques like deep and regulated breathing can be performed at your work desk, on your way to work, or just before you sleep.
If you suspect that you might be suffering from a vagus nerve disorder, it is advisable that you consult with your healthcare provider to know the next necessary steps.