What happens in the vagus nerve, it turns out, doesn’t stay in the vagus nerve. The longest of the 10 cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is so named because it “wanders” like a vagabond, sending out fibers from your brainstem to your organs. The vagus nerve is literally the captain of your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system, to be specific. And like a good captain, it does a great job of overseeing a vast range of crucial functions, communicating nerve impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating chronic inflammation, and the beginning of an exciting new field of treatment that leaves medications behind.
Here are some facts about this powerful nerve bundle.
1. The vagus nerve prevents inflammation.
With a vast network of fibers stationed like spies around all your organs, when the vagus nerve gets wind of impending inflammation—it alerts the brain and elicits anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters release.
2. It helps you make memories.
A University of Virginia study showed success in strengthening memory in rats by stimulating the vagus nerve, which releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the part of the brain that consolidates memories.
3. It helps you breathe.
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, elicited by the vagus nerve, literally gives you the breath of life by telling your lungs to breathe. It’s one of the reasons that botox—often used cosmetically—can be potentially dangerous, because it interrupts your acetylcholine production.
4. It’s intimately involved with your heart.
The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses to the sinoatrial node of the heart, where acetylcholine release slows the pulse.
5. It initiates your body’s relaxation response.
When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine.
6. It translates between your gut and your brain.
Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you’re feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials”. Your gut feelings are very real.
7. Overstimulation of the vagus nerve is the most common cause of fainting.
If you tremble or get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a flu shot, you’re not weak; you’re experiencing “vagal syncope.” Your body, responding to stress, overstimulated the vagus nerve, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to drop.
8. Electric stimulation to the vagus nerve reduces & inhibits inflammation.
Truly breaking new medical ground, neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey was the first to prove that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. Results on rats were so successful, he reproduced the experiment in humans with stunning results. The creation of implants to stimulate the vagus nerve via electronic implants showed a drastic reduction, and even remission, in rheumatoid arthritis—which has no known cure and is often treated with the toxic cancer drug methotrexate—
So, how is your vagus nerve working? There are three ways your doctor can check, to help evaluate whether your vagus nerve function is good or diminished.
So how can you perk up a sluggish vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve’s plasticity and function can be improved with neurological exercises that stimulate the muscles in the back of the throat (which then stimulates the vagus nerve). These should be repeated daily for 2-4 weeks.
Gargling: Gargle long & deep enough to make it an exercise. Drink several 8-oz glasses of water daily by gargling each mouthful.
Singing loudly: Sing in your car, sing while gardening, or whenever you can. Chant after meditation, or join a choir.
Gagging: Stimulate the gag reflex several times a day; use a tongue depressor, a spoon, or your finger, though only to the point of gagging, not vomiting.