How To Keep Calm With Vagus Nerve Stimulation
You've probably never heard of the vagus nerve, but you might want to start listening. Learning how to do vagus nerve stimulation on your own can give you a pathway to calm the interconnected issues of your body.
- The vagus nerve controls many functions within our body, and you can stimulate it to tell your body to relax.
- You can stimulate the vagus nerve without help from a doctor.
- Most mindfulness exercises increase vagal tone.
What is it?
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complicated of the brain's 12 pairs of cranial nerves. Cranial nerves send and receive information from the brain's surface to tissues and organs throughout the body. The word "vagus" is derived from the Latin word "wandering" because the vagus nerve travels all throughout the body.
The vagus nerve is a mixed nerve that is made of 20% “efferent” fibers (fibers that send signals from the brain to the body) and 80% “afferent” (sensory) fibers (fibers that carry information from the body to the brain).
With all of this information, it is able to control many functions of the body both in the sympathetic (fight or flight responses such as increased heart rate) and parasympathetic (resting actions such as digestion) systems. It is the biggest component of a circuit that connects our brain to our neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen. Speech, digestion, taste, breathing... It's almost unnerving how much this one nerve is responsible for.
What does it do?
The four main functions of the vagus nerve are:
- Sensory - Collects signals from the throat, heart, lungs, and abdomen and communicates them back to the brain.
- Special sensory - Provides taste sensation.
- Motor - Moves the muscles in the neck responsible for swallowing and speech
- Parasympathetic - Responsible for the digestive tract, respiration, and heart rate functioning at all times.
Vagus nerve stimulation
The phrase "vagus nerve stimulation" (VNS) is a catch-all term for any method (either manual or electrical) that stimulates the vagus nerve. The first known recording of vagus nerve stimulation was documented in the 1880’s. Here, manual massage and compression of the carotid artery in the cervical area of the neck was shown to suppress seizures, this result was later attributed to crude activation of the vagus nerve.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s electrical vagus nerve stimulation was tested mainly on cats and monkeys and showed how vagus nerve stimulation influenced brain activity. Fast forward to today vagus nerve stimulation has FDA approval as treatment for refractory epilepsy and chronic treatment resistant depression (chronic TRD). For these disorders, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) uses a device that looks like a pacemaker to transmit regular, moderate electrical pulses to the brain via the vagus nerve.
The brain is not physically involved in this procedure, and most patients are unable to feel their pulses. Additionally researchers have thought vagus nerve stimulation may be a suitable treatment for bipolar disorder, treatment-resistant anxiety disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic refractory headaches, and obesity, although none of these uses has yet had FDA approval.
Increasing stimulation at home
Luckily if you want to practice vagus nerve stimulation at home, you can do so!
The first step in this practice is to be mindful about your vagal tone or the activity level of the internal processes that the vagus nerve deals with. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
Vagal tone can be measured by tracking heart rate, breathing rate or heart rate variability and comparing them to your resting activity levels. The more variable your heart rate, the higher your vagal tone. Basically vagal tone refers to your ability to effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms related to life.
Aside from surgically implanting a pacemaker for your vagus nerve you can try a few natural treatments:
- Cold exposure - Researchers have also shown that regularly exposing oneself to cold lowers your sympathetic "fight or flight" response while increasing parasympathetic activity via the vagus nerve. Try making the last 30 seconds of your shower cold, work for longer periods of time and maybe work to an entire cold shower. Going outside in minimal clothing when its a bit colder for a quick walk is also an easy way to expose your body to a little cold.
- Laughing - Researchers observed that focusing on positive social relationships promotes happy emotions and improves vagal tone. Laughter has been found to boost mood and increase heart-rate variability. Furthermore, vagus nerve stimulation frequently results in laughing as a side effect, suggesting that the two are linked and affect one another.
- Meditation - Meditation improves vagal tone and pleasant emotions, as well as feelings of kindness toward oneself, according to research. Meditation also decreases sympathetic "fight or flight" activity and enhances vagal regulation, according to another study.
- Singing - Your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat are linked by the vagus nerve. These muscles can be activated and stimulated by singing, humming, chanting, and gargling. Using these muscles more has been proven to boost heart rate variability and vagal tone.
- Probiotics - In a recent study using mice, researchers discovered beneficial alterations to the GABA receptors in the brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and reduced sadness and anxiety-like behavior when they were fed the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus. The vagus nerve enabled these positive alterations between the stomach and the brain, according to the researchers. To test this fully, Lactobacillus Rhamnosus was introduced to the digestive tracts of other mice after their vagus nerve was destroyed, in these mice the new gut bacteria failed to reduce anxiety, stress, or enhance mood.
- Breathing - Another approach to activate your vagus nerve is to breathe deeply and slowly. By altering breathing, you can stimulate the vagus nerve, it has been demonstrated to decrease anxiety and boost the parasympathetic system. The average person takes 10 to 14 breaths each minute. It's a good idea to take around 6 breaths in a minute to reduce tension.
Your body and mind do not have to dominate you. You have the authority to direct their actions. You may send a message to your body that it's time to relax and de-stress by stimulating the vagus nerve, which leads to long-term benefits in mood, wellness, and resilience. Hopefully there is something above in the list of activities that helps you just a little bit today.
Written by Kiana St. Onge