Most people have never heard of the Vagus Nerve. That won’t be true for long. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has already been approved for refractory epilepsy and depression. But the therapeutic reach of this cranial nerve covers a roster of stress-related maladies such as hypertension, insomnia, anxiety, obesity, and the destructive domain of inflammation.
The aptly named vagus, latin for wandering, extends from brain to colon and modulates autonomic, cardiac, respiratory, gastrointestinal, immune and endocrine function. Like an unconscious brain, it integrates feelings from the body and regulates essential functions including heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. Even feeding behavior is calibrated by the vagus, initiating digestion and providing the gut-brain signaling pathway.
This vast neural network maintains psychophysiological balance. The vagus provides the main communication lines for the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). To quickly review, the ANS regulates organ function. It is called autonomic because it is automatic or involuntary. The two branches of the ANS, sympathetic and parasympathetic, control the fight or flight and rest and digest responses, respectively.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are a sort of yin and yang. Health requires their balance. Unfortunately modern life makes that quite difficult. Constant stress of one kind or another tips the balance toward excessive sympathetic (fight or flight) tone. This promotes inflammation, hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, immune dysfunction, obesity and accelerated aging.
How can we promote increased parasympathetic tone in order to regain balance?
Stimulation of the vagus nerve lights up the parasympathetic system and elicits a relaxation response. Until recently VNS required the implantation of a device to deliver an electrical impulse to the nerve. This surgical procedure is complicated and costly. A gathering body of research suggests that the same results can be obtained without surgery. It so happens that the path of a part of the vagus nerve passes very close to the skin in the ear. This makes it possible to provide an electrical impulse through an ear bud and achieve comparable results to the implant at a fraction of the risk and cost. This is a game changer.
Although no such device is yet available by prescription, an enterprising company now provides a preview of things to come. Avoiding the tortuous path to FDA approval, Nervana promises a unique listening experience through a headset that delivers both music and vagus nerve stimulation. Their tag line, “Nervana allows you to feel music like never before.”
If you’re saying to yourself, “there are simpler ways to relax”, you’re right. In fact, we have been practicing VNS for millennia. Repetitive prayer, chanting, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong and diaphragmatic breathing all stimulate the vagus nerve. That is why they all decrease heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation, and increase the secretion of anti-stress hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, oxytocin and growth hormone.
So whether you assume the lotus position, breath through your belly or apply the magical headset, vagus nerve stimulation is the answer.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on August 2, 2016.