Out of the 12 cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is the 10th and most complex nerve (CNX). The nerve emerges from the medulla oblongata in the brain stem and runs through the face and neck to the abdomen. This article discusses Vagus nerve function, disorder, and how to stimulate it.
Functions of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve can transfers information from the brain’s cortex to various organs around your body. It plays a principal role in your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It also controls digestive functions, breathing heart rate and has a significant effect on your overall health.
For example, when your body is at rest, the vagus nerve sends instructions to slow down your breathing, heart rate and speed up digestion. When your body is under stress, the nerve slows down digestion and increases your heart rate and breathing. In addition, the vagus nerve manages the sympathetic nervous system’s (fight-or-flight response).
What is Vagus Nerve disorder?
In some cases, your vagus nerve can become over-stimulated or become underactive and doesn’t function properly. Your vagus nerve disorder symptoms will depend on whether your vagus nerve is overreacting or under-reacting to stimuli.
The vagus nerve can also be affected by some diseases like diabetes or other gastrointestinal conditions. These vagus nerve disorders can trigger different conditions ranging from minor mood swings to more severe problems like obesity.
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.
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.
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
Problems Caused by Vagus Nerve Disorders
Some conditions that can damage the vagus nerve and cause problems include:
1. 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
2. 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.
3. 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 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.
4. Vagus Nerve and Inflammation
Proper vagal tone is critical to maintaining overall body health, but it is essential to regulate inflammation in the body.
Short-term inflammation is necessary for fighting off infections in the body and assisting it in repairing itself. Still, it can negatively impact 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.
5. 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 relaxation.
12 Easy Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
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.
In research on the effect of Lactobacillus on the gut-brain link, taking lactobacillus probiotics improved gastrointestinal health, and taking probiotics also helps reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
2. Cold Stimulation
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.
3. Emotional Health
Positive emotional health is linked to many things, and the vagus nerve is one of them. Research has shown that subjects 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 positively. Examples of such activities include mindfulness techniques, yoga, and meditation.
4. Breathing Techniques
There is enough evidence to show that the vagus nerve can be stimulated and boosted with breathing techniques. Also, deep and steady breathing comes in 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 overall health.
5. Yoga Stimulation for the Vagus Nerve
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.
You can stimulate your vagus nerve with yoga exercises that require conscious, deliberate breathing. Certain yoga exercises improve your vagal tones, lower blood pressure, and manage anxiety.
In a study carried on a group of people, the people who took intensive yoga exercises had better moods and heart rates than the control group that took regular walking exercises.
Massaging your body can help soothe muscles, improve circulation, and reduce stress. Aside from its relaxing benefits, massaging certain areas of your body can increase your body’s vagal activity.
For example, according to The Journal of Clinical Neuroscience research, they discovered that massaging the carotid sinus on the sides of your neck could stimulate the vagus nerve, increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability.
Massaging your carotid sinus is also used to reduce the frequency and magnitude of epilepsy seizures.
7. Intermittent Fasting
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 is one activity that transmits signals into the vagus nerve and triggers anti-inflammatory responses in the spleen. What’s more? Studies have provided evidence that acupuncture improves vagal activity, respiratory health, gut health, and heart health.
Besides improving the vagal tone, recent research on the health benefits of acupuncture showed it could also protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
Laughing is one of the easiest ways to boost your mood, reduce anxiety, and stimulate your vagus nerve. The reason is, laughing requires diaphragmatic breathing and activates the parasympathetic system.
The journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a study on the tremendous benefits of laughter on vagal tone and heart rate variability. If you’re looking to stimulate your vagus nerve naturally, laughter is the best medicine.
10. Taking Omega-3 supplements
Omega 3 provides incredible benefits to the heart and improves your vagal response too. The fish oil improves cognitive depression symptoms, keeps the heart healthy, and reduces inflammation.
11. Taking serotonin supplements
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the gut that boosts mood, controls depression, reduces hypertension, and stimulates the vagus nerve. Taking serotonin supplements helps to boost the production of serotonin in the brain and improves vagal activity.
12. Humming and Singing
The vagus nerve runs through your neck, controls your vocal cord muscles, and the muscles at the back of your throat.
Humming a short song in the shower, singing your favorite song, or gargling can stimulate your vagus nerve and improve your mental health.
Singing requires guided breathing, which can influence your vagal response. In fact, in a study carried out on a group of people, including singers. The adult singers had a better heart rate variability and vagal tone than people who don’t sing.
Treatment for Vagus Nerve Disorders
1. 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.
2. Undergo Nerve Therapy
After consulting with a specialist and 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.
3. 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 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 and regulating the heart rate, among other things.
It is clear to see why it is important to keep the vagus nerve properly stimulated and in peak condition with its many benefits. If you suspect that you might be suffering from a vagus nerve disorder, you should consult with your healthcare provider to know the next necessary steps.