Vagus nerve: 7 health benefits of stimulating the “gut-brain” connection


Last Updated October 11th, 2019

What is the vagus nerve?

Identified as the 10th cranial nerve, it is also called the pneumogastric nerve.  The nerve is so named since it wanders transmitting sensory fibers from the brainstem to different organs.  It is the longest among the cranial nerves and controls the inner nervous system.  It originates in the brain and extends up to the abdomen.  As a matter of fact, there are two vagus nerves namely the left and the right but is collectively called the vagus nerve.

Various functions of the body are monitored by this nerve.  It controls important organs such as the heart, lungs, and the digestive tract.  Several sensory activities and motor information are controlled by this nerve.  It provides innervation to various organs such as the heart, lungs, blood vessels, esophagus, stomach, and the intestines.  It plays an important role in regulating the heart rate.  It also controls the gastrointestinal tract and helps in appropriate functioning.

Main functions of the vagus nerve

Vagus nerve is involved in four major functions and these include sensory involving the throat, heart, lungs, and the abdomen.  Next is the special sensory where it aids in the process of identifying the taste by taste buds placed behind the tongue.

Another function includes motor where is helps in important movements such as during speech and swallowing.  Finally, it helps in the parasympathetic functions such as during respiration, managing the heart rate, and managing the digestive tract.

Other functions of the vagus nerve include communicating from the gut to the brain and vice versa.  It communicates with the diaphragm to provide relaxation by taking deep breaths.  Anti-inflammatory signals are sent by the nerve to reduce inflammation at the affected area.  It plays an important role in managing heart rate and blood pressure.  In a few cases, you may experience low heart rate when the vagus nerve is overactive and can lead to organ damage.

Fear, stress, and anxiety are again controlled by the vagus nerve when it sends signals from the gut to the brain and hence the phrase “gut feeling” is derived.  The various situations of stress, fear, and anxiety can be recovered when the nerve functions appropriately by sending signals from the gut to the brain.

How does the vagus nerve benefit us?

Helps prevent inflammation

Inflammation occurs as an aftermath of an injury or trauma.  A small amount of inflammation is acceptable and can be easily managed.  In certain cases, there is an overabundance associated with certain health conditions such as sepsis and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.  Sensory fibers transmitted by the vagus nerve are generally situated around the organs.  When there is an abundance of inflammation associated with cytokines or tumor necrosis, these fibers act immediately and alerts the brain to dispense anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters in order to manage the immune response by the body.

Builds memories

The process where the mind stores and retrieves information is called memories.  It is always wonderful to cherish a sweet memory and this is achieved with the help of the vagus nerve.  Studies have indicated that stimulating the vagus nerve helps in the production of norepinephrine, which is a neurotransmitter.  This helps in the storage of memories into amygdala which is a part of the brain that stores memories.  Similar studies are being undertaken to find treatments for Alzheimer’s disease by stimulating the vagus nerve.

Helps with breathing

The process of breathing is controlled by the vagus nerve by transmitting a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.  This neurotransmitter regulates your breathing by determining when your lungs should inhale and exhale.  This is the reason why Botox used in cosmetics can be so dangerous, because of its ability to block acetylcholine leading to breathing problems.

Controls heart rate

Heart rate is the movement of the heart during which it pumps blood throughout the entire body.  It is essential to maintain an appropriate heart rate so as to not strain the heart.  A fast heart rate causes excess pressure to the heart leading to heart failure and other associated complications.  Vagus nerve plays an important role in controlling the heart rate by transmitting electrical impulses to the heart muscles which is situated in the right atrium.  The release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve regulates the heart rate appropriately.

Helps with relaxation

During a stressful situation, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released in large numbers.  This is the reason why few people find it difficult to manage stress and it can lead to depression.  When the stress hormones are released, the vagus nerve counteracts by releasing acetylcholine to manage these stress hormones.  Similarly, in other conditions, several other enzymes such as prolactin, oxytocin, and vasopressin are released to calm down the stressful situations and indicating the body to calm down.  Studies have indicated that people with a strong vagus nerve response are better equipped to manage these conditions.

Translates your gut feeling to your brain

Since the vagus nerve extends from the brain to the abdomen, the gut can translate how it is feeling.  For example, if your gut is low on probiotics or is unable to digest food, it signals the brain through the vagus nerve, which we experience in the form of nausea.  This phenomenon is considered to be highly important to know how your gut is functioning.

Stimulating the vagus nerve is considered a new field of medicine

Various studies have indicated that stimulation of the vagus nerve can treat certain medical conditions such as inflammation and epilepsy.  Several studies have indicated that stimulating the vagus nerve appropriately can reduce inflammation and even in some cases can treat the condition.  Similarly, since the nerve is connected to the brain, it can send electrical signals to the brain and treating seizures.

How do I stimulate the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve can be stimulated by following some simple instructions.  It is as simple as toning up your muscles.  Few methods are discussed below.

Exposure to cold

Visiting places where the temperature is cold, drinking a glass of ice water, and even taking a cold shower can stimulate your nerves.  Studies have indicated that when the body is subjected to cold exposure, there is an increment in the parasympathetic system which is regulated by the vagus nerve.

Social interaction

Interacting with your friends and family brings in positive emotions such as joy, serenity, and hope.  These positive thoughts stimulate the vagus nerve which is evident when the heart rate increases.  Hence positive social interaction is one of the ways to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Gargling

As discussed earlier, the vagus nerve connects the neck region.  When you are gargling with water, you are actually stimulating the pallet that is connected to the vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates the nerve itself.

Singing

Singing a slow pitch song, a high pitched song, or even humming can increase your heart rate.  Since the vocal cord is activated during singing, it stimulates the vagus nerve that is placed behind the throat.  It has been found that singing in unison can increase the vagus function and produce oxytocin, which is also considered a love hormone.

Massage

Many have known massage therapy for relieving pressure and providing a calming effect.  In fact, this massage can help you stimulate the vagus nerve.  Massaging the neck can relieve seizures whereas foot massage is useful to reduce heart rate and blood pressure.

Laughter

Laughing therapy is doing the rounds these days.  You could see many people taking up laughing therapy at several recreational centers.  Studies have indicated that laughing can increase the parasympathetic system, which enables the stimulation of the vagus nerve.  There are also cases reported where people even faint after excessive laughing.  This is due to overstimulation of the vagus nerve.  In other cases, few people can experience leaking of urine when they laugh loudly, which is again due to the stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Yoga

Yoga is well known for meditation and treating several health conditions.  Studies have indicated that performing yoga can increase the production of a neurotransmitter called GABA by stimulating the vagus nerve.  This neurotransmitter can calm down the mind and is helpful in controlling anxiety and depression.

Deep breathing

During deep breathing, baroreceptors detect blood pressure and transmit these signals to the heart, which in turn activates the vagus nerve.  When these signals reach the heart, it controls the heart rate and blood pressure appropriately.

Mild exercise

Studies have indicated that exercise plays an important role in promoting the growth hormone of the brain.  It has also been found to reverse cognitive decline.  All these effects of exercise are due to the stimulation of the vagus nerve.  It has also been found that the gut flow that is managed by the vagus nerve also can improve with mild exercise.

Enemas

Enemas are not only used to relieve an obstructed colon but also to cleanse the bowel.  Enemas also support the process of detoxifying the liver as well as the bowel.  Enema use helps in stimulating the vagus nerve by making the cleansing process easier.

Nervana

This is a product which helps to stimulate the vagus nerve by sending electrical signals through the left ear canal.  This device is connected to an earplug which needs to be inserted into the left ear.  The device plays music which can be enjoyed and during this process transmits electrical signals that stimulate the vagus nerve and provides a calming effect on the body.

Problems related to the vagus nerve

Problems with the vagus nerve can cause the following symptoms:

Gastroparesis

Damage to the vagus nerve can cause a condition called gastroparesis where you have difficulty in emptying your bowel.  Some of the symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, as well as the loss of appetite.

Vasovagal syncope

This is a condition where a person may faint due to certain triggers.  This is due to overstimulation of the vagus nerve.  One of the examples include people fainting at the sight of blood.

Nerve damage

Vagus nerve damage may cause numerous complications.  The symptoms depend on which part of the nerve is damaged.  Some of the signs and symptoms of nerve damage include problems with speaking, hoarse voice, trouble swallowing, abnormal heart rate, pain in the ear, uncontrolled blood pressure, etc.

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