The Miraculous Vagus Nerve
Unchecked inflammation is a common feature of most illnesses. I’m going to share a simple and fascinating way to combat unchecked inflammation in a second, but first some background.
Inflammation is regulated by cytokines—tiny immune chemicals that turn inflammation up or down. They keep us healthy in moderation but create serious organ damage and even death when they surge out of control. Nobody knows exactly what makes this happen, but one factor that might be at play?
The vagus nerve.
In Latin, the word “vagary” means “wanderer” which is an apt description of the longest nerve in your body. This is Cranial Nerve 10 and it originates in the medulla oblongata in your brainstem. The medulla is the site of your heart and lung rhythm center. It is the reason you don’t have to remember to breather or have a heartbeat.
The vagus nerve is actually a network of nerves that connects the brain to the immune system, heart, lungs, gut, and other organs. It governs parasympathetic activity, meaning that it balances out the fight-or-flight response and puts the brakes on stress. The parasympathetic nervous system controls your body’s “rest and digest” functions.
Importantly, you want to regulate the tone of your vagus nerve. In 2010, researchers found a positive feedback between increased vagal tone and emotional health. In other words, increased vagal tone has a positive effect on positive emotions and overall good health. Increased vagal tone reduces stress, heart rate and blood pressure. Increased vagal tone stimulates all the things we experience when we are at rest and relaxing.
The vagus nerve also calms inflammation.
Here’s the fascinating bit that I promised I’d get to. 2 new case reports showed that stimulating the vagus nerve quickly and noticeably improved breathing problems in patients with COVID-19. (granted, these were case studies and not clinical trials, so time will tell if the results can be repeated).
The patients used a hand-held device (called gammaCore) to provide electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve. To be clear, I’m not advocating that everyone rush out and get one of these gammaCore devices. You do need a prescription, and they’re not cheap.
What I am advocating is that we take the power of the vagus nerve seriously and be proactive to support our vagal nerve tone every day.
Because if you look at just about any medical condition that’s made worse by stress or inflammation—from arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease—you’ll find research to show that vagus nerve stimulation is beneficial.
There are lots of ways to stimulate the vagus nerve:
- Breathe deeply- take 6 breaths a minute instead of your usual 12 to reduce anxiety
- Cold Exposure- 30 seconds of cold water at the end of your hot shower
- Reach your hands to the sky and stretch
- Give a bear hug
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Do yoga
- Singing, Humming, Gargling or Chanting
- Probiotics to improve your gut bacteria. Remember the gut brain connection
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil) are critical for brain fitness and mental health
- Exercise- try to walk 30-60 minutes a day
- Massage or Reflexology, especially the bottom of the feet
- Socializing and Laughing- If you’re an introvert, watch something funny
Make these activities a part of your everyday routine to support your immunity. Why? Because your immune system does not work in isolation. It’s connected to your brain, your stress responses, and all organs of your body.
Staats P, Giannakopoulos G, Blake J, Liebler E, Levy RM. The Use of Non-invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Treat Respiratory Symptoms Associated With COVID-19: A Theoretical Hypothesis and Early Clinical Experience. Neuromodulation. 2020; 23:
784-788. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32342609/ GammaCore website: https://www.gammacore.com/