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You've Got a Nerve, a Vagus Nerve!

The vagus nerve is a superhighway of communication between your brain and your body, affecting your mood, digestion, heart, and immunity.

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve or cranial nerve X, is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system which controls involuntary body functions. It is tasked with regulating critical body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.

The vagus nerve carries motor and sensory information to different organ systems of the body, including:

  • Cardiovascular system, including the heart and major blood vessels

  • Respiratory system, including the lungs and airways

  • Digestive system, including the throat, esophagus, stomach, and intestines

It also provides sensory information to the skin and muscles which, in turn, stimulates reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, swallowing, gagging, and vomiting. The sensory information stimulates body functions like sweating, salivating, mucus production, and the urge to urinate.

For those who do not have access to a VNS device or want a more natural approach to treatment, there are practices which may help manage autonomic dysfunction.

These at-home treatments are thought to stimulate the vagus nerve by slowing the heart rate and reducing emotional stresses that can trigger or worsen vagus nerve disorders.

Examples include:

  • Deep breathing exercises: Slow, conscious breathing is thought to stimulate the vagus nerve, not only improving heart rate and blood pressure but also easing digestion.7

  • Mindfulness exercises: These include practices like yoga and tai chi in which respiration is synchronized with body movements. Some studies suggest such practices can improve vagal nerve tone, leading to a slower heart rate and lower blood pressure.

  • Foot reflexology: This massage-based practice has been shown to slow heart rate and respiration, lower blood pressure, and increase oxygen saturation, suggesting that it positively stimulates the vagus nerve.

  • Music therapy: It is thought certain types of music can positively influence moods and elicit a beneficial autonomic response. This may be especially true with low-frequency sounds delivered with slow, rhythmically structured music.

  • Cold-water immersion: Facial immersion in cold water is thought to indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve. This is evidenced by the fact that, after the initial shock of cold, the heart rate will begin to slow. Open-water swimming may have the same effect.

It is unclear whether any of these techniques directly stimulate the vagus nerve in the same way as electrical VMS, but each is known to trigger a positive physiological response that can help relieve stress and improve moods.


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