One of our body’s longest nerves has been touted as a cure-all for anxiety and other psychological problems on social media. According to the research, here’s what you need to know.
Especially on social media, the vagus nerve has become a popular topic in recent years. Several influencers attribute the vagal nerve fibers, which run from the brain to the abdomen, to reducing anxiety, regulating the nervous system, and relaxing the body.
There are nearly 70,000 Instagram posts with the hashtag “#vagusnerve” that have been viewed more than 64 million times on TikTok. People plunge into ice water baths or lie on their backs with ice packs on their chests in order to tone or reset the vagus nerve. Additionally, neck and ear massages, eye exercises, and deep breathing techniques are offered.
Various wellness companies have capitalized on the trend, offering products like “vagus massage oil,” vibrating bracelets, and pillow mists that claim to stimulate the nerve, but are unproven scientifically.
According to researchers studying the vagus nerve, stimulating it with electrodes might improve mood and alleviate symptoms in those suffering from treatment-resistant depression, among other ailments. Is there another way to activate the vagus nerve? Who would benefit most from this? What exactly is the vagus nerve? Here’s what we know so far.
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What is the vagus nerve?
Vagus nerve is actually a shorthand term for thousands of fibers. Doctor. Tracey, a neurosurgeon and the president of Northwell Health’s research center in New York, said they are divided into two bundles that branch outward to touch our internal organs from the brain stem through both sides of the neck and into the torso.
Consider a tree with limbs that interact with nearly every organ system in the body. In Latin, vagus means “wandering.”
A vagus nerve transmits information from the brain stem back to the body, helping to control digestion, heart rate, voice, mood, and immune function.
This is why the vagus nerve, the longest of the 12 cranial nerves, is sometimes referred to as an information superhighway.
It was compared to a trans-Atlantic cable by Doctor.
“It’s not a mishmash of signals,” he explained. “Every signal serves a specific purpose.”
The vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. In contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the body’s “fight or flight” response, the parasympathetic nervous system helps us rest, digest, and calm down.
In the late 1800s, scientists began examining the vagus nerve to see if stimulating it could treat epilepsy. Later, they discovered that activating the nerve improved mood as a side effect. Psychiatric disorders, among other conditions, are being studied by researchers today.
What does the research say?
Epilepsy, diabetes, treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and inflammatory autoimmune conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis, can all be helped by stimulating the vagus nerve. Some preliminary research suggests that long Covid symptoms may be caused, in part, by the virus’ effect on the vagus nerve.
According to Eric Porges, an assistant professor at the University of Florida who studies the vagus nerve, it can sound magical with all the things it does. “We continue to learn more about the vagus nerve,” he said, but there is still a lot to learn about how it works.
Some patients suffering from severe depression who had not responded to other treatments began to benefit from vagus nerve stimulation in the early 2000s.
There was a wave of studies that followed.
For patients with treatment-resistant depression, the Food and Drug Administration had approved implantable pulse-generating devices that sent electrical signals to the vagus nerve by 2005. Epilepsy and obesity are also treated with similar devices – which help control feelings of hunger and fullness. In contrast, these devices are expensive and can take months to work, sometimes even a year.
Currently, researchers are recruiting patients for the largest clinical trial to date examining whether vagus nerve stimulation can help patients with depression who don’t respond to other treatments.
Bipolar depression has so few treatments available that it may be especially helpful to those with the disorder, said Doctor, a senior psychiatrist involved in the clinical trial and chief science officer at the Institute for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, a center within the Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital that helps those who haven’t responded to conventional treatments and medications.
The problem with treating depression is that “we’ve got a lot of medications that basically do the same thing,” Doctor said. “We don’t have a lot of novel stuff when patients do not respond to those medications.”
Insurance companies have so far declined to pay for implanted vagus nerve stimulation, with the exception of Medicare recipients taking part in the latest clinical trial.
As a result of Doctor’s research, which uses vagus nerve stimulation to treat inflammation, it may also prove useful for treating psychiatric disorders such as PTSD. Emory University’s Behavioral Immunology Program director.. He studies how the brain and immune system interact, and how those interactions can contribute to depression and stress.
According to him, PTSD is characterized by increased levels of inflammation in the blood, which can affect anxiety-related circuits in the brain.
During a pilot study at Emory, for example, researchers stimulated the neck skin near the vagus in 16 people, eight of whom received a sham treatment and eight of whom received a vagus nerve stimulation treatment. According to the researchers, stimulation treatment reduced inflammatory responses to stress and was associated with a decrease in PTSD symptoms, suggesting that such stimulation may be helpful for some patients, including those with elevated inflammatory biomarkers.
A method of adjusting vagus nerve electrical stimulation based on a patient’s physiology has also been patented by Doctor and his colleagues at the University of Florida. His current project is to develop an external medical device that uses this approach for patients with PTSD with the company Evren Technologies, where he is a shareholder.
How do you measure vagus nerve activity?
Due to its complexity, it is difficult to measure the vagus nerve’s activity directly. The heart is connected to some vagus nerve fibers, so experts can indirectly measure cardiac vagal tone — the way in which your nervous system regulates your heart — through an EKG, which measures how the amount of time between your heartbeats fluctuates.
Diabetes, heart failure, and hypertension have been associated with abnormal vagal tone.
Having a high variability between heartbeats may indicate an ideal vagal tone.
How can you improve your vagal ‘tone’ at home?
When you hold your breath and submerge your face in cold water, you trigger the “diving reflex,” which slows your heartbeat and constricts your blood vessels. People who have tried it report that it has a calming effect and can even reduce insomnia. To relieve anxiety, others wrap an ice pack in cloth and place it on their chests.
In terms of controlling anxiety or depression, these specific exercises haven’t been adequately studied, so it’s difficult to determine if they work or how well they work. It’s worth a try, however, according to some experts.
“Certainly, it’s one of the more benign things you can do,” he said.
Doctor cautioned, however, saying that without clinical data, it’s difficult to assess risks and benefits. A physician should be consulted before doing any intervention, he advised.
Doctor recommended maintaining high vagus nerve activity through mindfulness, exercise, and paced breathing. “These are all very healthy for you.”