Toning the Vagus Nerve
Relief for Pain, Anxiety and Inflammation
by Marlaina Donato
Research is helping doctors connect the dots between seemingly unrelated conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, revealing a common denominator: the multitasking vagus nerve, the longest in the autonomic nervous system.
The superpower of this double-branched cranial nerve lies in transporting major neurotransmitters along what is known as the brain-gut axis. “The vagus nerve stems from the brain to the abdomen like a communication superhighway between your gut and brain,” says Hannah Aylward, an Orlando-based certified holistic health coach and gut health expert. “Studies show that the vagus nerve regulates inflammation throughout the body.”
Recent studies have shown that vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can improve quality of life for individuals suffering from numerous conditions. One type is a device that can be implanted by a neurosurgeon, which sends electrical impulses to the vagus nerve in children that suffer from seizures and adults with depression as a supplemental treatment when surgery or medications are not possible or effective.
There is also a handheld, non-invasive VNS option called gammaCore, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved device that offers hope for sufferers of cluster and migraine headaches. Its effectiveness for chronic pain management, as well as in cases of epilepsy and depression, was published in the Neuromodulation Journal in 2015.
PTSD researcher Imanuel Lerman, M.D., and his colleagues with the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, found that VNS affects areas of the brain responsible for processing emotional pain. The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE earlier this year, also show that VNS delays the brain’s response to pain signals in individuals with PTSD.
Mental Health, Trauma
and the Gut
When it comes to the vagus nerve, anxiety is physical. Post-traumatic stress is rooted in neurobiology and experienced in the body, not just the mind, says Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D., a Boulder, Colorado-based clinical psychologist and author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. “This is why you can’t simply think or talk your way out of your trauma reactions.”
According to Schwartz, “Disruptions in the gut flora, which often occur with overuse of antibiotics, can have a significant impact on mental health. An imbalance in the gut can lead to an inflammatory response in the immune system and a wide range of disruptive symptoms.”
Aylward notes that 95 percent of the body’s mood-boosting chemical serotonin resides in the enteric nervous system, which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract. “The brain-gut axis is becoming increasingly important as a therapeutic target for psychiatric and GI disorders,” she says.
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, explains the trauma loop. “Developmental trauma impairs the integrative circuits of the brain and nervous system—the prefrontal cortex. When this happens, the brain will be hyperalert, interpreting some non-threatening situations as threatening.
“Learning to be aware of our internal state and learning calming techniques helps to regulate the autonomic nervous system and can go a long way,” says Siegel. “High ventral vagal tone means having a state of calm.”
Everyone can benefit from increased vagal tone, which goes hand-in-hand with engaging the parasympathetic nervous system for optimum equilibrium at the cellular level. Acupuncture, chiropractic—with a focus on the cranial nerves—massage, meditation, singing, laughing loudly, chanting mantras, gentle yoga and exercise, positive social interactions, belly breathing and chanting all make the vagus nerve a happy camper.
These activities promote relaxation and help to decrease inflammation. “As a certified yoga instructor, I can attest to a wide range of natural vagus nerve stimulation techniques, especially using the breath,” says Schwartz. “Diaphragmatic breathing creates a gentle massage across your digestive organs, releases the diaphragm and stimulates nerve fibers within the lungs. Heart rate is reduced.”
Brief exposure to cold water or cold air improves vagal tone and is a good option when anxiety is high. Eating cold-water fish like wild salmon or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts, seaweed, hemp, flax or chia seeds provides vagal nourishment.
Marlaina Donato is the author of several books, including Multidimensional Aromatherapy. Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.